After the presidential election last year, the term “fake news” entered the popular lexicon in a way that only a viral social media phenomenon can: it was everywhere, all the time, and has become used by everyone. Unfortunately, unlike other viral phenomena, fake news has not blown up, burned out, and gone away. It persists as the yellow journalism of the modern era.
“Fake news” has also become a slur hurled carelessly at anyone with whom we may have a disagreement. If you have an ideological axe to grind, the quickest way to shut down a debate is to say “fake news!” A new Godwin’s Law, it seems, is needed to describe how quickly we resort to launching this new argumentative cudgel.
Still, there is “fake news” the slur and there is, well, real fake news. While the former has become something of a distraction, the latter is a serious threat to our ability to gather real information. Our news feeds get cluttered with links to sites of organizations that almost look legitimate, that may line up with our worldview, but with a few clicks we’re down the rabbit hole into a universe of disinformation created and disseminated by propagandists, some of whom just want to make a buck and others with more nefarious motives. Up is down, in is out, and…well, you get the idea. The creation and distribution of information is fraught with quite a bit of peril these days.
Librarians, of course, have stepped up to this challenge.
“We’ve had this role from, from forever,” Denise Raleigh, head of the public relations and development of the Gail Borden Public Library District in Illinois told Vice News back in March. “This issue coming to the forefront, it’s an opportunity to remind people of how librarians are trained.”
In fact, the Gail Borden Public Library District was also at the forefront of panels and community talks that have taken place at libraries all over the country in the past year. In January it hosted “Librarians vs. Fake News,” a panel meant to help guide patrons through the minefields of error online.
This is but one district in the line of defense against fake news. The American Library Association put together a resource list earlier this year that many libraries have since used as a launch pad for their own programs. If you’d like to distract yourself with some hopeful internet searching, here are a few other examples of recent efforts by libraries to help their patrons discern real news from fake:
University libraries are stepping up as well. Using our colleagues in the University of Georgia Libraries as an example, they recently hosted a student debate titled “Do Facts Still Matter?,” where students debated the current state of information sharing, what constitutes a fact, whether freedom of speech applies to the deliberate spreading of disinformation, and so on. (You can watch a portion of their debate on the UGA Science Library’s Facebook page here.)
Like many unsung heroes in our society, librarians don’t often get their due. Occasionally, though, the public rises up in their defense. A couple of weeks ago, a twitter rant by The Angriest Librarian (aka Alex Halpern) went viral when he responded to this tweet by Andre Walker, a columnist for the New York Observer:
Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools. https://t.co/Cimy1V81n5
— Andre Walker (@andrejpwalker) October 22, 2017
In addition to meeting a community’s need for educational and recreational materials, PARTICULARLY FOR YOUNG FAMILIES…
— The Angriest Librarian (@HalpernAlex) October 23, 2017
“Some of the best people on Earth that I know are librarians, and they’re doing amazing work, building communities and helping people in need,” Halpern told the Washington Post. “I think they should be recognized more for that.”
After Halpern’s tweetstorm went viral and a small army of library-loving Tweeters swarmed in, Walker walked back some of his original criticism and offered this fig leaf to librarians:
— Andre Walker (@andrejpwalker) October 25, 2017
And then one of the rarest things that can happen in online debate did: It ended with comity.
No problem, glad to help.
— Andre Walker (@andrejpwalker) October 25, 2017
So far as I can tell, the ALA hasn’t announced how much money was raised for the Spectrum Scholarship Fund as a result of this viral Twitter feud. For the successful defense against whatever the next generation’s fake news is, let’s hope it’s a lot.
Jason Bennett is a publicist and the social media manager at UGA Press.
This post is a part of the #UPWeek Blog Tour by member presses of the AAUP. You can visit today’s posts by our colleagues from other presses at their websites here:
University of Missouri Press on how their Special Collections archives and librarians helped their author and press with Lanford Wilson: Early Stories, Sketches, Poems.
University of Nebraska Press: Pat Leach, Library Director of Lincoln City Libraries, comments on a perfectly ordinary thing—conversation about books.
University Press of Florida: Spotlight on the Florida and the Caribbean Open Books Series, a collaboration between the University of Florida Press and the UF George A. Smathers Libraries.
University of Alabama Press: A conversation with Tom Wilson, Associate Dean for Branch Libraries and at University of Alabama