Can You Believe It? How to Determine Credibility in the Era of Fake News
Lynn Silipigni Connaway
August 25, 2017
As you will read elsewhere in this newsletter, the Board has decided to suspend publication of the Bulletin because of the retirement of the editor, and feedback that ASIS&T should offer different and varied forms of communication. Given this turn of events, I decided to take a different focus on a prominent topic in the news as well as a major focus of my research.
There is much discussion about identifying fake news, determining the credibility, trustworthiness, and integrity of information, and fact checking (Domonoske 2016; Maheshwari 2016; McCoy 2016). Oxford Dictionaries even announced the word “post-truth” as the Word of the Year 2016 (Oxford Living Dictionaries 2017). Oxford Dictionaries states that the word has been in existence for about a decade but there was a spike in the frequency of the use of the word in 2016 “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries 2016).
As an elementary school student, I remember being taught how to determine trustworthy sources of information, including people. We were taught to find information about the author and who had referenced the author as well as learn more about the source document. This was taught before we ever had access to online sources, which can present even more challenges than the print environment. After all, a 1993 New Yorker cartoon at the onset of the internet age stated “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”[i]
During the past decade, I have been involved in research that identifies how and why individuals get their information and engage with technology. This research has provided insights into how individuals determine credibility and select online sources. When we interviewed students in their last year of secondary school and in all levels of their undergraduate programs in the US and UK, we heard some interesting theories for determining credible online sources (Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood 2013a, 2013b; Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu 2013). One stated, “It depends. It depends who’s made the website or what I have been told about the website or whether I know about it at all. But — it sounds silly — but sometimes you can just tell whether a website looks reliable or not depending on how professional [it] looks and who’s written it” (Digital Visitors and Residents, UKU6, Female, Age 19, Emerging). Another stated, “I always stick with the first thing that comes up on Google because I think that’s the most popular site which means that’s the most correct” (Digital Visitors and Residents, USS1, Female, Age 17, High School Student). Others are either overwhelmed by the amount of information they retrieve from search engines, often satisficing their information needs with the first several items or links listed on the results page.
These comments indicate the broad range of criteria and the rationale used to determine credibility of sources. The context and situation of the need also determine the effort expended on discovering and accessing sources. In our research, we learned that individuals will exert less effort if the rewards or punishments are low level. For example, secondary and high school students indicate that the amount of effort expended on acquiring sources depends on the worth of the assignment, i.e., the percentage the assignment will contribute to the grade. If an assignment only is worth 5% of the grade, some students will spend less time and effort on this assignment than one that is worth 25% of the grade. Why not? Time is valuable and sparse so individuals must make choices on where to spend their time.
A Google search on “how to determine credibility of sources” retrieved a list of about 685,000 results. I found many university libraries, writing centers, and other academic department sites and LibGuides that provide guidelines for evaluating the quality and credibility of sources. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) also created an infographic that includes eight steps for determining the credibility of a news item (IFLA 2017). However, the real challenge may be in making evidence-based informed decisions throughout all stages of our personal and professional/academic lives. This means that we need to be able to collect the evidence, determine whether it is credible and trustworthy, and then make informed decisions. This is a concern that was voiced by academic library administrators and provosts at academic institutions in the US when they were interviewed for the project, Action-oriented research agenda on library contributions to student learning and success, which OCLC has undertaken in partnership with the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (Connaway, Harvey, Kitzie, and Mikitish 2016, 2017). Many of our individual semi-structured interviews with provosts, which took place several days after the November 2016 US presidential election, were centered on how educators and information professionals must be involved in educating students to be functioning and informed citizens. The provosts stressed the importance of educational institutions teaching critical literacy skills to students so they are able to differentiate between facts and fiction both within and outside of the academy (Najmabadi 2017a). Critical literacy skills also have been identified as one of the top trends in higher education in a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education Special Report (The Chronicle of Higher Education 2017; Najmabadi 2017b, 2017c).
Considering the importance of determining whether the information we are receiving is fact or fiction, I invited several speakers to address this issue at the ASIS&T 2017 Annual Meeting, Diversity of Engagement: Connecting People and Information in the Physical and Virtual Worlds, in Washington, DC. The President’s Invited Panel, Digital Literacy in the Era of Fake News: Key Roles for Information Professionals, is scheduled on Monday, October 30, from 10:30AM to 12:00PM. The invited speakers currently conduct research and lead teaching and learning on determining the credibility of information and identifying fake news and sensationalized scientific claims. Heidi Julien, representing the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE), will focus on ways to help individuals develop their critical thinking skills to manage massive amounts of information. Michael Seadle, representing the iSchools consortium, will discuss a grayscale measure that provides a broad range of options for determining the degree of truth or fakeness by the density of the facts. Alex Kasprak, science editor at snopes.com, will explain how science fake news differs from other fake news and will discuss ways to identify false science online.
I look forward to connecting with you at the Annual Meeting, Diversity of Engagement: Connecting People and Information in the Physical and Virtual Worlds, where we will be celebrating ASIS&T’s 80th Anniversary. We have changed the schedule a bit this year in honor of this milestone. We will be hosting a University Alumni Tea on Tuesday, October 31, 2017, instead of a reception and the Professors will be performing on Sunday, October 29, after the combined Welcome and 80th Anniversary Reception. The Women Leaders of the Information Field Happy Hour is back by popular demand and will be held on Saturday, October 28. We are looking forward to SIG CON on Halloween so don’t forget your costume!
Chronicle of Higher Education, The. 2017. “The Trends Report.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Special Report, March 3. www.chronicle.com/specialreport/The-2017-Trends-Report/95.
Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, William Harvey, Vanessa Kitzie, and Stephanie Mikitish. 2016. Action-Oriented Research Agenda on Library Contributions to Student Learning and Success: Initial Report. November 2016. http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/themes/acrl-research-agenda-nov-2016.pdf.
Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, William Harvey, Vanessa Kitzie, and Stephanie Mikitish. 2017. Action-Oriented Research Agenda on Library Contributions to Student Learning and Success. January 10, 2017. http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/themes/acrl-research-agenda-jan-2017.pdf.
Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, Donna M. Lanclos, and Erin M. Hood. 2013a. “’I Always Stick with the First Thing that Comes Up on Google. . . ‘ Where People Go for Information, What They Use, and Why.” Educause Review Online, December 6, http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/i-always-stick-first-thing-comes-google-where-people-go-information-what-they-use-and-why.
Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, Donna M. Lanclos, and Erin M. Hood. 2013b. “’I Find Google a Lot Easier than Going to the Library Website.’ Imagine Ways to Innovate and Inspire Students to Use the Academic Library.” Proceedings of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) 2013 conference, April 10-13, 2013, Indianapolis, IN. http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/conferences/confsandpreconfs/2013/papers/Connaway_Google.pdf.
Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, David White, Donna Lanclos, and Alison Le Cornu. 2013. “Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?” Information Research 18, no. 1, http://InformationR.net/ir/18-1/paper556.html.
Domonoske, Camila. 2016. “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds.” NPR, November 23, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/23/503129818/study-finds-students-have-dismaying-inability-to-tell-fake-news-from-real.
English Oxford Living Dictionaries. 2016. “Word of the Year 2016 Is…” Accessed August 23. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016.
IFLA. 2017. “How to Spot Fake News.” Accessed August 23, 2017. https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174.
Maheshwari, Sapna. 2016. “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The New York Times, November 20, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html.
McCoy, Terrence. 2016. “For the ‘New Yellow Journalists,’ Opportunity Comes in Clicks and Bucks.” The Washington Post, November 20, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/for-the-new-yellow-journalists-opportunity-comes-in-clicks-and-bucks/2016/11/20/d58d036c-adbf-11e6-8b45-f8e493f06fcd_story.html.
Najmabadi, Shannon. 2017a. “How Colleges Can Teach Students to be Good Citizens.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Colleges-Can-Teach/238891.
Najmabadi, Shannon. 2017b. “How One College Put Information Literacy into Its Curriculum.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-One-College-Put/239293.
Najmabadi, Shannon. 2017c. “Information Literacy: It’s Become a Priority in an Era of Fake News.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 26, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Information-Literacy/239264.
Oxford Living Dictionaries. 2017. “Post-Truth.” Accessed August 23. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth.