Libraries are ill-equipped to fight fake news, critics say. Maybe they were celebrated too soon as bastions against misinformation. But as part of a network they can certainly act against manipulated reports.
There is this poster. "How to spot fake news". Published by the IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, translated into nearly 40 languages and often cited as an example of the new media competence of libraries. And stolen. At least library scientist M. Connor Sullivan thinks so.
In his essay "Why librarians can’t fight fake news", published in March 2018 in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, Sullivan faces up to the hopes of past years that library staff could do just that. The problem for Sullivan is not that the previously mentioned IFLA infographic is derived from a 2016 article by FactCheck.org, but that libraries’ knowledge about the about misinformation and fake news is, in his opinion, still too superficial.
Algorithms as adversaries and helpers
Thus libraries are said to be lagging behind developments when they still think that only websites with unprofessional and sloppy design can be identified as counterfeits. This, writes Sullivan, simply overlooks one of the biggest problems with current fake news, namely the ability to copy official sources with deceptive genuineness.
In fact, the 2016 US presidential campaign at the latest made it clear that the technical possibilities of attempted manipulation, especially in the social media, have reached new dimensions. The problem will therefore have to be solved to a large extent technically. Major industry figures such as Ryan Holmes, founder of the social media management platform Hootsuite, want to ensure that in future social networks monitor their content better.
How does fake news work?
According to Sullivan, libraries also lack a deeper understanding of what misinformation is and how it affects brain activity. Libraries' previous work in this area has often assumed that the distribution of valid information is the best way to combat fake news. But the "good information doesn’t fill a gap; it has to prevail against fake news already anchored in the head. Researchers have discovered that this is a much more difficult task. If, for example, misinformation has strengthened already existing convictions, the attempt at correction can lead to a so-called backfire effect - facts that fail to correspond to a person’s views consolidate them even more.
Another complicating factor is that fake news has developed into a vogue phrase which is applied to various phenomena – not only to completely fictional news but also to news coloured for political reasons but which has a true core. In addition to this, there are opinions disguised as facts and the classic newspaper canard: a false report that is usually based on a mistake.
Here again the human factor and so too libraries and their staff come into play: information is matter of trust, especially when it comes to challenging existing beliefs. Not to be underestimated is also the fact that the basic knowledge about how information can be prepared and checked can already be found in libraries.
Passing on knowledge in the network
Certainly many librarians will first have to acquire the modern media competence that they are supposed to convey themselves. This will be a task not for individuals but for a whole network: "We will need more different types of librarians", said Nate Hill of the Metropolitan New York Library Council in an interview with the Goethe-Institut. At the same time, related fields such as journalism could benefit from the knowledge possessed by libraries; in Hill’s opinion, archive maintenance is an important component in the fight against fake news.
How effectively the exchange of knowledge can work has been demonstrated by the International Research & Exchange Board, IREX, in an impressive project in Ukraine. To counter Russia-sponsored propaganda, the international nonprofit organization first trained librarians and then a total of 15,000 Ukrainians to review sources and recognize paid opinions, hate messages, fake videos and photos, and so to counteract manipulation.
Libraries are not inherently equipped to fight fake news. But the conditions required for applying ever more valuable means in this battle already exist.