The Internet allows the public to have more information at its fingertips than ever before in history. However, it also allows for the dissemination of unverified claims. The role of information leaders is to help the public identify real information and learn to think critically about what is spread through social media, blogs, radio shows and even television. For those pursuing a library science degree online, it’s important to consider the role of the information leader in an age when fake news can impact public opinion. Suffice to say information leadership is more important than ever.
The trustworthiness of the media is not a new concept. Media in its many forms will always be at risk for bias. Writers have personal opinions, and newspapers have advertisers. Overall, however, certain outlets throughout history have consistently offered the facts rather than opinions. Nonetheless, there is no denying the recent emphasis on media bias.
Nowhere is this bias more evident than when it comes to politics. The United States presidential election in 2016 is perhaps the clearest example of all. On one side of the political spectrum are candidates and supporters calling out the biases and trustworthiness of an entire industry. On the other, professionals point to weaknesses across the aisle. The louder this gets, the more the public begins to distrust the media as a whole.
According to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 62% of people receive their news via social media. More specifically, 44% are using Facebook as a primary source for news. Social media may not always be the problem as there are major, reputable news outlets providing information on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. The issue is that other, less reputable sources can post to these sites as well. When all of these sources are presented in the same format, how can the public determine which is trustworthy? That’s a challenge that information leaders like librarians have to tackle.
Information literacy is the ability to recognize the need for information, find relevant sources, evaluate those sources and then make use of the information. Information literacy has always been an issue. Facts in two encyclopedias may differ, and two newspapers can have different versions of the same event. Whether someone is reading a magazine article or a Facebook post, he or she must still work through the stages of information literacy.
First, that means recognizing the need for information. For many, that now means typing a question into the search bar of Google or Bing. If the search for information is more general in nature, it could mean clicking through to a news website and browsing the articles. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the news that Internet users come across in modern times is unsolicited. Indeed, the Pew Research Center reveals that up to 62% of Facebook users and 63% of Instagram followers get their news online while they are doing other things. In these situations, people may be more susceptible to believing information that is fake, as they are not actively seeking the information and may be less vigilant about sources and data.
As information leaders, library science graduates can teach the public about where to best search for information online. They can show people how to evaluate the information they do find and then question the integrity of each source. Sometimes, that means learning more about the origins and reputation of a source. A small blog with a firm view against a certain political party, for example, is likely not going to report the facts in an unbiased manner. It also pays to go deeper into learning about the individual reporters or researchers. A scientific finding sponsored by a beverage company won’t have the same weight as one sponsored by a leading medical organization with government funding.
Finally, information literacy has to include the sharing of information. After it has been processed and vetted, can the information be shared confidently? The action of a single click could mean someone is supporting a source, an article or a viewpoint. There is some personal culpability at play, and information literacy deals with this critical part of being a better judge of information both for oneself and for others in a network.
To truly understand the importance of information leaders, it is important to consider the potential impact of fake news. In the past year alone, dozens of celebrities have been the subject of high-profile death hoaxes, including Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, and Angelina Jolie. Many of the hoaxes originated from fake news websites while others came from social media. The Sylvester Stallone hoax originated on Facebook and quickly escalated into a viral online rumor. The hoax was created to deceive users into clicking on a seemingly legitimate CNN news link and agreeing to reveal their private Facebook profile information. Examples like this serve as reminders that fake news dissemination can have dreadful consequences.
The 2016 election season also presented hundreds of prominent fake news stories regarding candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some of which were shared more than a million times across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Though this type of false information comes in many forms, the point remains the same: A single Tweet, real or not, can have untold influence around the world.
Information leaders have a challenging and exciting job that ultimately affects most of the population. Information leaders need to provide every generation with the tools and critical thinking skills necessary to be literate in every sense of the word. Some examples of information leaders educating the public in this way include:
This job involves teaching the public how to analyze every tweet, every Facebook post and even radio commercials. For those with the right skills, this career path has so many rewarding facets; and it will play a vital role for years to come.
Helping others navigate information overload and uncover factual information is an important role of the modern librarian. For those interested in this role who want to pursue a career in information science, an advanced degree can help. An education in this area can build the skills necessary for becoming an information leader in a time when these beacons of knowledge and guidance are needed more than ever before. To learn more, visit the USC Marshall School of Business Master of Management in Library and Information Science Online.
Information Literacy Competency – The American Library Association
News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016 The Pew Research Center: Journalism & Media
Instagram, Facebook and YouTube news users most likely to happen upon news online, but LinkedIn, Twitter and Reddit news users are more evenly divided between news seekers and non-seekers The Pew Research Center: Journalism & Media
How Fake News Goes Viral: A case study – The New York Times
Can Librarians Save Us From Fake News? – The Vice
Fighting Fake News – LJ Professional Development