The Fakery of ‘Fake News’
I remember the days when we all got our news in the morning or evening at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock or 11 o’clock from one of the three or four channels we trained our antenna to transmit into our television. We all had to listen to the same broadcast on TV and a few selections of local radio and papers and magazines. I am not being nostalgic, rather just remembering there was a time when we had no choice but to go to sleep and wait for the next news cycle to know who won the election the day before. I am sure, in the days of print and broadcast TV there were the journalists and politicians who were up all night waiting by news ticker, or earlier the telegraph, keeping vigil as the average worker slept for another day of work. Today, we all are watchers of our personal buzz as the tickers have multiplied and sped up, our own personal daily state of crisis. The buzz around ‘fake news’ may be one of the loudest. In our perpetual state of crisis, it is like the boy who cried wolf, it is the red herring distracting us from the actual state of crisis that is being constructed by fake ‘fake news.’
We should be clear that when we lament the ‘fake news’ take over we are talking about media illiteracy, not actual fake news. Fake news was originally reported in our current public discourse to describe actual false information knowingly posted by bloggers in Macedonia who were gaming the system to get more clicks to make money from ads on their websites, as reported by Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander in Buzzfeed. Facts may be framed within a news story in interpretations that are biased. Fake news has come to be used to dismiss news that has a bias with which we disagree thanks to Trump’s co-opting of the term. Trump’s use of it has legitimized and popularized it as a topic to be covered in the news just like his use of the phrase ‘you’re fired’ in his reality TV show The Apprentice popularized that it as a put-down. Likewise, ‘fake news’ is now used to dismiss anything that is presented with a bias that is against our own biases, even if the actual statements and facts are true.
Though we did not recognize it at the time, The Apprentice was the beginning of the current president propaganda machine. Reality TV — this fabrication of drama between non-actors put in contrived situations and later edited together like a ransom note to send a message the original speakers never said — took off a few years before in the early 2000s, though reality shows existed as far back as Candid Camera in 1948. In the late 1990’s the very purpose was to blur the notions of reality and fiction.1 As a librarian, I am deeply concerned, and often troubled, by the lack of evidence-based news or by the eagerness of even educated people to share unverified or extremely biased sources without acknowledging the bias. I believe we know the difference, on a logical level, if asked, between ‘fake news’ and reality TV and reality, though the way it has permeated our daily lives makes it news and entertainment emotionally indistinguishable. We like personal stories and narratives. When I asked for feedback on this and some other essays about issues in media literacy, other well-published writers wanted more anecdotes, less of the the academic voice with footnotes and citations. I struggle with when to rely on my authority as a professional and when I need to give evidence to my hunches and observations, with how to engage the personal and not falling into just being another opinion not rooted in evidence.
For example, I was going to continue with some sort of lament about how blogging has made everyone a news source which democratizes news, but also loosens standards that we once had in the good old days of reporting. I realized, besides my personal memory and experience, I have no knowledge about blogging history. I know enough to know I am often clueless to current trends (I never watched The Apprentice, for instance, when clearly I should have paid attention), so I consulted the databases I can access through my school district for a broader and perhaps more historic perspective. I found that blogging, or individuals making public letters/essays with their experiences and opinions about current events, is not really new. In fact, before there were professional journalists there were people who corresponded (i.e. correspondents) about world events through letters to other people and “writers and readers used social networks to judge stories’ trustworthiness.”2 So where does this leave us with ‘fake news’ and the influence of social media? Are we not simply sharing our experiences and using our own social networks to judge stories’ trustworthiness? What happens if the blog is no longer individual experience, but a construct of corporations and special interests that create media that looks looks like reality? In a digital world, how do we know human from bot?
Reframing the Relevance of Libraries
During the rise of The Apprentice and various pairings of bachelors and bachelorette and around the release of the prophetic Idiocracy in 2006, we moved into a period of massive layoffs and cutbacks in public education. It is the combination of these phenomena that is so threatening to a free society, not just the presence of reality TV. Particularly hard hit were libraries. In the L.A. Times Hector Tobar reported how librarians were put on trial to prove their competency despite the fact that to be a librarian one must hold two teaching credentials and complete the near equivalent of a master’s degree (many take the three extra classes to earn their Master’s in Library and Information Science). Libraries were shuttered, their inventories were left unused and unmaintained, resulting in libraries that would be easy to frame as irrelevant and outdated. During library orientations with freshmen at my high school, the majority come from three years at a middle school with no library access and no librarian. Even before the layoffs, the funding for library materials was eliminated, according to the California Department of Education statistics, by moving those funds into flexible budgets that allow money designated for library materials to be diverted to other needs. By the time I became a librarian in 2011, the fact that my school gave me any money for materials was an anomaly. Still, with only $5000, the library could not catch up from years of falling behind. The collection was severely outdated, with computer manuals providing instructions on using a floppy disk and dial-up internet.
Just as teachers are experts in their subject matter, librarians are experts in the organization and retrieval of information. We are experts on how to create search strategies and navigate scholarly databases, many now online. We help educators at all levels help their students, maintaining print and digital collections to support curriculum and research. Libraries are often in forefront of technology, particularly in relation to organization and presentation of information, and teacher librarians are leaders on campuses for implementing technology and promoting digital citizenship. Librarians work behind the scenes in innovative ways, such as the CLOCKSS Archives, to make sure that information, the building block for human progress and growth, continues to be accessible and discoverable even in the digital age. Finally, librarians uphold democratic ideals of privacy and freedom to access information and ethical use of information. However, most people see librarians as people who simple keep books and lend them to others, a job that can be automated in an Amazonian style. This is importanta and beautiful, but it ignores the complexity of curating and managing information in the 21st century. Is it any wonder that with their devaluation in our society we have fallen prey so easily to the president’s propaganda of ‘fake news,’ and to the biased framing of facts that undermine critical and balanced thinking and discussion, ultimately leading to choices based on bias rather than compromise?
Consequences of Neglecting School Libraries
In early November 2017, NPR aired several stories on the congressional hearings about Russian interference in the November 2016 presidential election. That week’s hearings listened to testimony from executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google and suggested a move toward considering more oversight and regulation for these corporations. It might feel good to blame Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, but are they really the ones responsible? In an NPR interview with Senator Kamala Harris about the hearing, Senator Harris asserts “we should assume that Russia will improve their tactics, and we’re going to have to be smarter.” How we become smarter is not elaborated in the interview. First, it is unclear if the we she speaks of is government who needs to be smarter by increasing government oversight of corporations and not trusting them to self-regulate or take responsibility for the fact that users read, shared, and believed what is now referred to as ‘fake news.’ It is also possible the we are ‘we the people’ who need to be smarter, less dependent on corporations or government for vetting our news. How one hears this may be dependent on who the audience is willing to hold accountable, much like that cartoon with two panels of a parent-teacher conference labeled “then” and “now.” The “then” panel shows the adults looking to the student for an explanation for his failing grade. The “now” panel has the parents yelling at the teacher for the student’s failure as the student crosses his arms with a smug smile.
In another NPR interview related to the testimony of Google, Facebook, and Twitter executives, Randall Rothenberg of of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group that represents the three media companies giving testimony, outlines the process of regulation, if that is the solution Congress chooses, as a costly process including the to fund officials and staff to write the rules, and those who will have to enforce the rules. Alternatively, congress could choose to spend this money on libraries and librarians so that citizens could learn to be information literate enough to know if ‘fake news’ is fake or biased. Like the family blaming the teacher, we are not taking responsibility for our own failure to take time to consider what we are consuming as readers, viewers, and listeners, and, when something is suspicious, to seek out more evidence, more balanced and fair sources, more points of view. We are not taking responsibility for bankrupting our education system to a point where we fail to teach our children to be critical consumers of media. This failure is rooted in our nation’s conflicting perceptions of the value and role of public education (or education in general). By funding regulation, but not school libraries, we perpetuate the rise of a citizenry that does not have the skills to navigate the information landscape on their own, and the creation of a state where we are dependent on government and corporations to interpret and filter our information for us.
It is not about the lack of money, but the misuse of it. School officials line their pockets, as reported by Howard Blume for the L.A. Times, with deals with technology companies based on the misconception that having a computer for each student is equal to teaching them how to ethically and critically use that technology and the information to which it gives access. On NPR, Christopher Livesay covers Italy’s creation of new curriculum, “with help from leading digital companies,” to teach high school students how to spot ‘fake news.’ The curriculum focuses on teaching students how to identify sources. Though Facebook is backing the program, their “role in the initiative is limited to promoting posts that show high school-age students how to compare competing sources of information.” There is no mention of teaching students advance research skills or of including librarians in the development or implementation of the curriculum.
This story posits the Italians as cutting edge, though this is exactly the type of lessons librarians have been working to bring to curriculum in all subjects by collaborating with teachers. One example of this type of curriculum is the Center for Media Literacy’s framework to deconstruct media messages. In this framework, the first criteria is authorship: if the source of information is not transparent, if it is not clear who or where the information is from and how it is validated, then that source should not be used unless it can be corroborated with a credible source. Additionally, even if the source is clear, we must take into consideration the bias of the source (whether liberal, conservative, or foreign). The Center for Media Literacy mentioned above has been offering this type of curriculum support for decades with its origins going back to 1977. So why did we allow our libraries and librarians to remain unfunded just as the information explosion made librarians most necessary? Why are we allowing special interests to dictate classroom content? Just like with the congressional hearings, we turn to corporations while dismissing the expertise of teachers and librarians.
Libraries and Curiosity Are Not Dead Yet
Back in the beginning of our teaching careers, my colleague equated our job to educational triage as each year students seemed to arrive with weaker and weaker literacy skills. Who is holding the front line for standards? It goes back to that cartoon and personal responsibility. My colleagues who work in community colleges and universities lament students’ lack of information literacy and research skills and blame high schools, just as my colleagues in blame middle schools. One of my own graduate school alma maters has loosened requirements for the critical writing requirements and presentations, likely out of the frustration of students’ anxiety when faced with the rigor of academic research. What do we lose when we fail to hold ourselves and our children accountable for learning? While technology, smartphones, and social media may not actually diminish our ability to focus, according to Daniel T. Willingham’s 2015 article in the New York Times, “[t]echnology may snuff out our desire to focus.” Thus the more accurate question may be, what do we lose when we lose the desire to focus enough for deep learning and engagement?
As a librarian, I often ponder how do we re-learn to crave the investigation, the understanding of what goes on under the hood of the engines of society, as much as we crave the voyeuristic eavesdroppings of reality TV that lets us play Big Brother? Or are we finally indulging what we really craved all along: personalized and instantaneous stream of stimuli that confirms our belief systems? One of the most satisfying parts of my job is when I get to introduce teachers, students, and friends to free, credible, and diverse resources available through the library (either my school’s library or the public library). Students often go back on their own to use the databases once they learn how easy and valuable they are. A teacher I told me a student came back thanking her for the library resources lessons as he was the only one in a college class who knew how to meet the professor’s expectations. I could not imagine a society I would want to live in that did not allow free access to information.
I hear a lot about how much people love libraries. Yet, when it comes times to elect school board members or city council members, how often do we follow that passion and ask if they will support school and public libraries? How curious are we do know if the school down the street has a functioning library with a full-time teacher librarian? In Los Angeles, where many are vocal about the opposition to educational policies of Trump and DeVos, voters elected two pro-charter board members whose ideas (and funders) align with Trump and DeVos. Where was our desire to focus on these issues when we stepped into the voting booth? I hope these hearings, and the prospect of leaving it all up to government and corporations, will inspire others, not just librarians, to include school library advocacy in their civic engagement.
1″Reality Television Then and Now.” Points Of View: Reference Shelf- Reality TV (May 2014): 1. Points of View Reference Center, EBSCOhost(accessed December 29, 2017).
2 King, Rachael Scarborough. “Americans have been ‘blogging’ about politics for 250 years.” Washington Post, October 31, 2016. Opposing Viewpoints in Context (accessed December 29, 2017). http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A468505371/OVIC?u=lausdnet&xid=07d64e9b.otnote.