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The Fake News Age

With the truth under serious assault and propaganda—or worse—threatening the cultural and moral underpinnings of democracy, two Simmons scholars have devised a novel plan to put the monsters of imagination back in their rightful place.

Remember Pizzagate? On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two from North Carolina, walked into a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a .38 handgun, and a folding knife. He was on a mission to “free” children who were being “held captive” in a Hillary Clinton “pedophile scandal.” He fired the rifle—thankfully, no one was hurt. In the end, he found no evidence of “Pizzagate”—just patrons eating pizza and children playing ping-pong.

What possessed Welch to do such a thing?

Fake news.

In June of 2017, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Distortions of truth—misinformation, disinformation, suppression of information, distortion, propaganda, and censorship—can be matters of life and death. Pizzagate is just one example. There is no shortage of others. Among the most dramatic: a long-discredited study that links autism with childhood vaccines, which still leads parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Another is the public support for two Gulf Wars that was marshalled in part by untrue claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda. And consider climate change: A Harvard University study found that 83 percent of peer-reviewed papers by ExxonMobil scientists acknowledged that climate change is real and caused by human activity, but 81 percent of the company’s widely published advertorials sowed doubt.

Now, Associate Professor of Library and Information Science Laura Saunders ’01LS, ’10LSD, and Senior Lecturer in Communications Rachel Gans-Boriskin, are teaming up to do something about fake news. Saunders is a specialist in information literacy. Gans-Boriskin is a researcher in media studies. Backed by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, they hosted the symposium “Know News: Engaging with Mis-Information and Dis-Information” on April 21-22, 2018. The symposium, aimed at addressing the problem of information and media literacy, had three main goals: to identify practical ways to help students and members of the public become better consumers of information; to develop information- and media-literacy curricula for schools of library science so that their graduates are better prepared to help journalists and the public at large; and to set a research agenda aimed at improving the advancement of information and media literacy.

The symposium, a collaboration between the Simmons School of Library and Information Science and the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities, brought to campus 80 journalists, librarians, and academics from around the country to learn from one another and begin developing pragmatic, actionable approaches to the problem of finding and evaluating information. Attendees included Roberta Shaffer, the former law librarian of Congress; Phoebe Ayers, former trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation (which runs Wikipedia); and Lisa Mullins ’80, ’05HD, a veteran journalist who anchors All Things Considered on Boston’s NPR station, WBUR.

Calling journalists and librarians “kindred spirits,” Mullins says, “There’s a natural alliance between the two that’s underappreciated and underutilized—but one that’s full of possibilities.” In a time when fake news is flourishing, when technology is making it ever-easier to deceive, and when newsroom budgets are being slashed, Mullins says that journalists need librarians. The more librarians “can help journalists navigate the treacherous terrain on the Web and in social media, in particular, the more we can undermine artificial news and avoid being manipulated,” Mullins says. Turning her voice directly to librarians, she implores, “Help us learn how to verify images and even audio. Help us figure out how to trace a source’s online footprint. And teach the public how to do the same. If news and information consumers become critical thinkers and their own fact-checkers, we can wrestle this thing down.”

“As we are launching the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities, there really is this excitement at Simmons about honoring Gwen’s legacy. I can’t think of a better way than this focus on reliable information, on deep research, and on credibility in the news.” —Senior Lecturer in Communications Rachel Gans-Boriskin

The April symposium was both the culmination of several years of discussions between Saunders and Gans-Boriskin, and a start of things to come. The two women met when Saunders was co-teaching a media literacy course during a winter intersession at Simmons. “Rachel was new and her colleague pulled her in to do a guest lecture for us,” Saunders says. “I remember sitting there listening to Rachel speak, and it was just amazing.” Issues that Gans-Boriskin was raising from a journalism perspective—What is objectivity? What are the routines of work that journalists engage in to achieve objectivity? What are the best ways for local news sites to display political information online?—were similar to the issues that Saunders had been thinking about from a librarian’s perspective. After class, Gans-Boriskin says, “I remember getting an email from Laura saying ‘hey, there are all these intersections and overlaps and it would be great to talk.’”

They met for the first of many coffees. They weren’t sure what they might do, but they knew they wanted to work together. Then came the 2016 election and the dizzy realization of the role that fake news had played in it, and Saunders and Gans-Boriskin landed on convening a symposium. “The idea was to bring together journalists, librarians, and other information and media professionals for two days of facilitated brainstorming that is going to result in a number of proposals,” Saunders says.

“As we are launching the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities, there really is this excitement at Simmons about honoring Gwen’s legacy,” Gans-Boriskin says. “I can’t think of a better way than this focus on reliable information, on deep research, and on credibility in the news, which I think she really personified.” It is notable that students from Gans-Boriskin’s seminar “Culture of the News” attended the symposium as well. The symposium’s interdisciplinary emphasis dovetails with Simmons’ new curriculum, which encourages teaching and learning across disciplines, ethical leadership, and critical thinking that leads to practical, innovative problem-solving.

Boston Herald reporter Erica Moura ’10, a lecturer in communications who served on the symposium steering committee, applauded the timing of the symposium. “I think that now, more than ever, in this current administration, people need to have a clear idea of where information is coming from, and I think that there has been for a long time a disconnect between readers and audiences and newspapers and news organizations. I think this meeting of the minds is long overdue.”

Fake news is nothing new. Snopes.com, for one, has debunked the 200-year-old “news” that Russian Empress Catherine the Great died while trying to have relations with a horse. What’s different today is that the deleterious effects of fake news have been exacerbated by social media. Librarian-turned-journalist Marcus A. Banks, who attended the symposium, notes that there used to be an elite media that really did control the narrative. “What we see now,” he says, “is that you can get sites like Infowars and Breitbart and they come through your Facebook feed with just as much prominence as an article in The New York Times. The results have been flattened.”

Add to that human psychology. We prefer emotive over objective language. We have “confirmation bias,” which causes us to discount evidence that does not confirm our beliefs, and to elevate evidence that does. We continue believing false information even after it has been disproven. We are suckers for repetition, believing untrue things to be true simply because we’ve heard them over and over again. We live in social media bubbles, isolated from opposing views. We are not especially good at evaluating the credibility of information we encounter—and we’re not especially good at teaching media literacy to our children. Indeed, a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group looking at the ability of middle, high school, and college students to assess online information found these troubling results: Middle school students could not distinguish an ad from a news story. High school students reading about gun laws did not notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. College students failed to look beyond a .org URL to investigate the author of a website presenting only one side of a controversial issue.

All this suggests that we are naturally susceptible to fake news. “In my own life, if I want to believe that my sports team is going to come back even if they are losing by 40 points and there is only one minute left, I can find a way to convince myself,” Banks says. “I think all people have this tendency. It may just be more obvious now with the Internet and the way that people are sharing things.”

Journalism and librarianship rest on an assumption that we are not helpless before these tendencies. We can value objectivity and good information. We can learn to evaluate the truth of what we read, see, and hear.

“We can’t just throw our hands in the air and say it is the algorithms and it is the bots and the tech companies and there is nothing we can do about it. We are part of the problem—and part of the solution.” —Associate Professor of Library and Information Science Laura Saunders ’01LS, ’10LSD

Perhaps that is why symposium attendee David Beard is discovering so many instances of real-world cross-over between librarians and journalists. The former digital content editor of The Washington Post, editor of Boston.com, and former executive editor of the website of Public Radio International, Beard is a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. His research has led him to the town librarian in Weare, NH, who, in an effort to help fill a community news vacuum, has added items about local events to the library’s weekly newsletter. There’s the library in San Antonio, TX, which provides space to an independent C-SPAN-style outlet that trains students in video reporting. There’s the Black Hills Knowledge Network in western South Dakota, which offers online collections and resources on local issues with the help of 13 area libraries. And there’s Brandy Zadrozny, a librarian who now works as a journalist and whose exceptional research skills have yielded impressive news scoops—like the discovery that a Russian election troll, recently indicted by Robert Mueller, may have been trying to break into the social media management business.

Beard believes that journalists and librarians have a lot to learn from each other. “I think that librarians in many cases have a broader sense of the community. They are a good first warning system,” he says. On the other hand: “Understanding and reaching out to your audience is something that librarians can learn from journalists.”

Addressing the crisis of misinformation and disinformation is a tall order. Saunders and Gans-Boriskin know this, and have decided to focus their symposium on information and media literacy: “The challenges posed by mis- and disinformation are complex and the research does not point to an easy solution,” they wrote in their grant proposal to IMLS. “However, information literacy and related competencies such as critical thinking and media or news literacy are repeatedly identified as useful for combating the effects of mis- and disinformation. The American Library Association defines information-literate individuals as those who are “able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” As for media literacy, Saunders and Gans-Boriskin wrote, “The Center for News Literacy identifies five skills associated with news literacy, including: recognizing the difference between assertion and evidence; evaluating news across different formats; and understanding news bias and audience bias.”

Saunders and Gans-Boriskin designed the symposium to lead to particular outcomes. They wanted librarians and journalists to better understand the ethical underpinnings and methodologies of each others’ professions, and to leave the symposium with a list of best practices for creating, disseminating, and teaching about news and information. They wanted educators at all levels—from kindergarten to university—to have fresh approaches to imparting information- and media-literacy skills. They wanted to identify new technologies and project ideas that can be unleashed for the cause of reliable information. And they wanted this symposium to be just a start. Participants were invited to stay engaged and in touch through sharing apps and a resource-rich, interactive website. The symposium generated a research agenda that will be followed-up with a white paper and, eventually, advanced with proposals for future funding.

We’re living in a time when humans are spreading fake news faster than bots. That Saunders and Gans-Boriskin are insisting that their symposium leads to action, including actions aimed at raising the information and media literacy levels of the public, is cause for hope—especially if we follow their lead. “We can’t just throw our hands in the air and say it is the algorithms and it is the bots and the tech companies and there is nothing we can do about it,” says Saunders. “We are part of the problem—and part of the solution.”