A first person account of the battle for accuracy from a rather unattractive couch
I have tried very hard to be a Nerd of Trust. To me, accurate and timely information is a critical need for daily life function, and since 2016 I have worked tirelessly to promote good information literacy while combating fake news. As someone who has built a reputation of trustworthiness among colleagues, family and friends through fact-checks, online posts about false information and a relentless attack on fake news stories, I’ve earned my Nerd of Trust credentials.
The COVID-19 pandemic was an ideal situation for fake news purveyors. Through the rise of social media, many Americans have fallen prey to medically-oriented misinfodemics – floods of false information regarding issues of medical consensus such as vaccines and herd immunity. Additionally, the White House has consistently released statements regarding COVID-19 since January 2020 that have conflicted with their own experts’ advice. With this combination of widespread mistrust in both the medical community and in the federal government, and with a social media infrastructure free and open to everyone, fake news providers took advantage of a perceived information vacuum which allowed fake claims to spread broadly.
As a librarian, I have specific training regarding information access, retrieval, processing and dissemination through a variety of avenues, including print formats, academic publications paywalled from the general public, objects and documents in museums and archives, online applications and audiovisual media. My schooling and work experience, in both libraries and museums, provides me with a more practical set of skills that I have put to good use in recent months. A look at some of the tools I use to debunk stories is worth a look. Beyond Snopes, Politifact and FactCheck.org, there are a few other useful sources that can be used in conjunction with good information literacy skills and fact-checking sites.
- Media Bias Fact Check. Started in 2015, Media Bias Fact Check is a volunteer run project that assesses the bias and credibility of scores of news sites. It also lets you know if a news site has failed a fact check (or more than one) from Snopes, FactCheck.org or Politifact, and if the site might be classified as conspiratorial or satirical, as well as pointing out pro-science news sources.
- McGill University Office for Science and Society. Founded in 2000 by chemistry professor Dr. Joe Schwarcz, he and his team put together videos and a highly readable weekly newsletter focused on topics related to health and science, with an emphasis on debunking quack cures.
- The International Fact Checking Network. One of the many projects hosted by the Poynter Institute, they have developed a set of guidelines for fact checking organizations to consider as best practices and conduct a series of fact-checks themselves on a wide variety of claims. With COVID-19 infections reported in 168 countries as of this writing, it is important to realize that fake news tends to jump across international borders.
- Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. This free online textbook by Michael Caulfield, director of networked and blended learning at Washington State University-Vancouver, covers information literacy and good fact-checking practices in one convenient place, with exercises that everyone, students or not, will find practical.
- The IU East Fake News LibGuide. The document that started it all – I created this in November 2016 after I identified a need for fake news resources in my classes. This is a compendium of images, tools, links, games and assessments, all for your use and all in one place.
The view from the couch
I’ve never been much of a desk person. For the most part, desks are good for collecting junk mail and books, and not much else. Since I’ve been ordered to work from home, I’ve set myself up on a 30 year old hand-me-down sofabed, distinctly unattractive, rumpled and slightly grumpy but well made, highly functional and surprisingly comfortable.
What surprised me was how quickly my work-from-home Facebook compatriots posted fake news stories of various stripes. Stories ranged from the widely-debunked “hold your breath coronavirus test” to thinly veiled, mostly unsourced opinion pieces claiming the US is overreacting to the COVID-19 crisis. The fake stories came immediately and, at first, with alarming frequency. Since accuracy and truth are so important to me, and because I have the skillset to debunk fake news stories rapidly with detail and accuracy, I checked as many as I could, fairly aggressively, with links to the above fact checking tools as needed plus links to other credible information disproving the claim, going on a point-by-point basis. It was exhausting, not to mention slightly disheartening.
But two weeks later, most of the fake news has slowed to a trickle. And my fact checks and fake news tips are being shared across my friend network. I’m now being asked directly to check out stories for real or fake content. To my friends and colleagues I have proven my Nerd of Trust credentials, and continue to do so with every thwarted fake news story and dubious accusation. This daily task is in addition to my other work on misinformation, including my weekly fake news check-in on Sunday nights on 91.5 FM WECI Radio, my library instruction one-shots for first year seminar classes and my schedule of public library workshops (currently suspended.)
Fake news isn’t merely an irritant, as COVID-19 has demonstrated perhaps more immediately than any election. It’s deadly. We as librarians have the tools to combat fake news as a service to those who are part of our lives, in any capacity. While the work is challenging, the end results – a more truthful world – are essential. More importantly, if we persist, our efforts will be recognized. From my couch, I salute you, my fellow Nerds of Trust, with the finest Vulcan hand gesture I can summon.