Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad News?

So let’s talk fake news.

This term has been omnipresent in our lives for the past few months from a variety of sources ranging from Facebook to mainstream media outlets, to the lips of our very own President-elect, Donald Trump. But when we hear “fake news”, what claim is being made?



Throughout the 2016 election, a wave of articles shared across social media platforms like Facebook touted salacious or provocative headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”.  You may say, “That’s outrageous and could never happen—no one should believe that.”

You, my friend, are right.

No one should believe it for a number of reasons, but the problem comes when these false stories make their way into the social consciousness through endless amplification.

So many of us—and I am guilty of this at times as well—read a headline supporting things we assume to be true, and share the story with our friends without ever reading the article, much less checking where that article came from. (Or even checking the date, for that matter; it would seem Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar have died every year since 2012 based on the resurgence of their obituaries on my news feed.)

Let’s not confuse stories that are false or out of date with satire, either.

The difference between The Onion and fake news is that it does not purport to be telling the truth. Sometimes, however, folks get tripped up on the differences and will actually share one of these stories thinking that they’re something real. An honest mistake, sure, but as more and more folks get their news from social media, an oops can have ripple effects.

Michelle Nijhuis, a writer for National Geographic and editor of High Country News, wrote an entry in 2014 for The Last Word on Nothing blog titled “The Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention”. (We’re all adults here; I make no effort to change a title.) She makes an important point in this discussion, saying that we, in effect, are all publishers: “Sharing a piece of news with 900 Facebook friends is not talking. It’s publishing.”

We, as information consumers and disseminators, are responsible for what we take in and put out.

I wholeheartedly recommend giving this blog post a read. She talks about the journalistic view of evaluating information sources and how to determine where truth lies and how to verify it within an inch of total certainty.

So why do I bring this up today?

I taught a module of classes this semester to our incoming freshmen dealing with information literacy. Part of that discussion is in determining the quality of the sources from which you are getting your information (as described in the ACRL in their Threshold Concepts). It’s much easier when you are using databases and subscription indexes, but in the wilds of the internet, this issue of authority is all too real—and it has dangerous consequences. Pizzagate, anyone?

I hope our short discussion was enough to pique student interest in the subject, but I worry that one can’t under-emphasize the importance of a healthy, skeptical eye.

We are not helpless in the face of this onslaught of misleading information, however. Information literacy is handled one moment at a time and relies on all of us as information consumers to take the time to vet information determine if we trust the source from which we are getting it.

It feels a little hopeless in the vastness of the internet, but I take solace in the fact that good news reporting is happening out in the world, and that investigative journalism is alive and well. More so than ever, we need to trust in those people working their professional lives to uncover truth and help establish a barometer for facts in our public discourse.

I’m putting information literacy into action in my life. Care to join me?


-Patrick Fulton



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