This week Oxford Dictionaries decided to announce that their word of the year was ‘post-truth’. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, and trust me I sometimes wish I had been as a survival technique, the way in which information has been passed around especially within the political world has been quite striking in its emotive overtones with an emphasis on how facts make people feel as opposed to how objective those facts may be.
As librarians, a large part of our professional skill set is helping people find information that is accurate and making sure that people are equipped with the right skills to be able to identify any bias behind that information, good or bad. In the world of the internet of course, anyone can put anything online for a variety of different reasons and with a variety of different intentions in mind and how those things are then absorbed by the average member of the public can be problematic.
From misplaced fears over vaccines causing autism to suggestions that terrorists are everywhere, especially within minority and/or refugee groups, the public are easily swept up by media reports designed to terrify and create hysteria. With the recent US presidential election results being blamed on both this concept of post-truths as well as issue of fake news on Facebook, as exposed by a recent Buzzfeed investigation (yes they do serious journalism too), the proliferation of extreme views across the internet as well as mistrust of…well…anything, how do we as information professionals help counter what is going on?
While I don’t have all the answers, I do have some thoughts.
People will still use Wikipedia, Google and social media to get their information.
This is a fact. Yes a fact that I’ve just said but a fact backed up by countless surveys and studies. People get their news and other information from the internet, and a large chunk of that comes from social media. Whether you’re a parent trying to work out if that rash that appeared on your child is suspicious or you’re a researcher starting a new project, odds are Googling a problem is going to be a factor.
We can encourage people to use databases and other reliable sources of information but often those sources aren’t as convenient because of firewalls, authentication requirements and usability. Bashing some keywords into Google is going to get results quickly. Of course, whether those results are decent or not is an entirely different issues.
So rather than focusing on getting people to search in the ‘right’ places and in the ‘right’ way, we need to make sure that our users are up to speed in being able to critically evaluate information. Comparing sources and statistics, awareness of bias, questioning of an author’s funding streams…all of these things are important and while many people might scoff at the thought of needing to boost their internet literacy, we’ve all been caught out by a rogue story or two. All of us. Don’t deny it. It’s happened. Even for a split second, The Onion has tricked you. But that’s ok, hopefully you realised the satire. But not everyone does and that can be where problems start appearing.
Now I’m not saying that people aren’t entitled to their views. No I don’t agree with a lot of the stuff that’s being broadcast 24/7 across the web at the moment. There’s a lot of hatred and fear out there but I also respect people’s rights to make informed decisions about where they want their country, leadership and politics to go. And that’s the key thing here. INFORMED. DECISIONS.
I read an article recently about employees of a air-conditioning manufacturing company who are desperately relying on the President Elect to carry through on his promise that he will stop their jobs from being outsourced to Mexico. I completely sympathise with their plight. No-one wants to lose their job and someone promising to stop that from happening is of course someone they will want to vote for. But will this even happen? As is very typical across both the US election and the UK referendum, many promises can be made but how realistic are they?
From promises to intervene in companies that are outsourcing work to other countries, also seen in the confusing back and forth with Ford, to the £350 million NHS promise plastered on the side of a Brexit Bus, it seems that there is a lot of misinformation out there that people are believing and are then applying to how they vote. And why shouldn’t they? Surely our leaders wouldn’t lie to us? Well they do.
Denial of facts and events
One other slightly baffling outcome of the proliferation of fake news is that by not trusting anything at all in our post-truth society, some people are denying that awful things such as persecution and attacks on minority groups are taking place, or are potentially being exaggerated. A lot of these accusations of exaggeration online are also accompanied by racial slurs or homophobic comments, among many other forms of negative language. Just looking at news headlines about this issue, you could easily believe the argument is split down the middle. One Tory MP accused those of ‘exaggerating’ hate crimes as shutting down dialogue, when ironically in my experience of being involved in similar conversations online that same accusation of exaggerations is in itself shutting down dialogue.
By denying that people are being attacked, or that things aren’t as bad as they appear to be, results in people not tackling the issues at hand and recognising that there are some unsavory elements in society and many of those elements are making society feel unsafe for minority groups, women and many others.
How is this relevant to librarians? Well apart from the obvious digital literacy angle here, we also should do whatever we can do offer safe spaces to our users wherever possible and be prepared to call out prejudice or persecution whenever we see it. I spoke about this when I wrote about Brexit a few months back and I want to reiterate that point here. We need to help, protect and assist our users wherever we can and that also includes those who might be causing trouble. Calling someone out might mean that a dialogue can start about how their intolerant views are not appropriate. It might not, but we can only try.
Helping researchers communicate
I looked at communicating research as part of my 23 Research Things programme for a reason and the timing was strangely apt as mere days before the programme post went live, this charming tweet appeared.
While arguably the view of just one man, this attitude towards academics isn’t new and part of our supposed post-truth society also includes one where people don’t trust experts. One interesting point made in the article I just linked to is that part of the problem with trust in experts is not that they know stuff but how they communicate that stuff. Here we find ourselves going back to the very start of this post where I spoke about emotions ruling over objective fact.
Last week I attended the excellent the UWE Science Unit’s Science Communication Masterclass, and one theme that kept coming up was engaging audiences with emotional responses to what you’re communicating to them. You can teach people facts but unless they connect with those facts on a personal level and apply them to their world experience then you’re not being a good communicator. Stripping down the jargon, making ideas accessible and applicable, all while exciting and entertaining an audience is what any good science communicator should aim for and I feel those core ideas should also apply to good expert communication overall.
Why have we got ourselves in the political situation that we’re in? People are cheesed off with a variety of different things and certain politicians tapped into that and did a pretty good job at getting people’s emotions riled in the direction they wanted voters to go. So how do we help level the playing field and helping those experts that we help support do the same sort of thing?
We teach them communication skills for public engagement and outreach. We do this stuff all day, every day. Well many of us should. We often have to explain stupidly complicated library stuff in simple terms so that our users will learn something without being overwhelmed by information that isn’t relevant or understandable to them. If you’re not an outreach type person then hook your users up with someone who is. While we may not always have the answers, we have the contacts. Lead by example by sharing good resources on social media accounts and by running effective teaching sessions on literacy, social media use and critical thinking, and build up the skills of your communities.
While many of the issues I’ve spoken about are complicated and I obviously have my own bias when writing about them (anyone and everyone does), I do feel that the library profession needs to step up to the plate and help form the critical, informed, self-aware society that many of us hope to be a part of. While this is not easy and we will have to fight constantly to do it, if we are to have a world that is safe and peaceful to live in, we must.
This is not limited to information awareness, but also to information security as the UK government continues to legislate against our rights to privacy online.
So go out and do whatever you can to try and help reduce the fallout of everything that is happening. Educate. Vote. Protect. Whatever it is, do it. Please.