The University of Washington iSchool recently launched the Center for an Informed Public (CIP) in partnership with other school entities. This center works to research and combat misinformation because of how misinformation has undermined our democracy. Their goals are needed and ambitious in our current political climate. They also align well with libraries’ objectives of promoting civic participation, information literacy, and otherwise encouraging people to be engaged learners and critical thinkers.
Libraries of all sorts can play a part in educating people to recognize when they are looking at misinformation, as is already being done in some libraries around fake news, and the CIP will help libraries educate more people on this topic. Teaching about recognizing fake news can be part of larger information literacy efforts, or it could be part of a discussion on the upcoming presidential election.
Civil discourse is incredibly difficult in such a polarized political climate, not to mention exhausting and makes people feel hopeless about this country. As CIP aims to research and educate about, much of this polarization did not come from Americans and does not accurately reflect America. Understanding this is vital in engaging in conversations with people or viewpoints you may disagree with, whether online or in person. Acknowledging that fake news and other misinformation is intentionally spread with an agenda to create division and confusion will also help those who can more readily identify it better interact with people who do share or believe fake news. It allows others to see they are not being intentionally malicious, rather that misinformation works to trick people and hijack their emotions to produce a desired outcome. This is not conducive to a healthy democracy where people listen to each other and engage in respectful and thoughtful discourse.
However, it is also important to keep in mind that having accurate and reliable information is not always enough for people to believe in science or make a decision that reflects being fully informed, as seen in how the belief in climate change tracks more with community and political leanings than whether one understands the science. Although this may have began with misinformation and withholding of information, as Naomi Oreskes demonstrates in the book and documentary Merchant of Doubt, this information may not be useful when working with people who bring this influence with them. Which is to say, people do not often change their minds when presented with information, rather things like culture and group identity play a large part in forming people’s knowledge.
With these tensions in mind – the power of misinformation and the influence of already-held beliefs – libraries are in a great position to navigate both. Librarians deal with information and we interact with people as people. Addressing and working to fix the harm already done from misinformation is needed work for this country. Since democracy does not just happen at the ballot box but in the ways we interact with people different from us, we need more places where people can do just that in a respectful and thoughtful way. Librarians know providing accurate information is not always enough and people respond better to the stories of others, of hearing how someone else is affected by laws and culture differently than them.
It is easy to create the “us versus them” mentality that so much fake news incites when people mainly interact with others like them. If you don’t actually know or live in a city with someone who is a different race or class from yourself, it is easy to believe what other people have to say about “them”. But when one is forced or encouraged through proximity, speakers, books, panels, etc to hear what actual people have to say about their varying beliefs and experiences, it is harder to dehumanize them. Hopefully, it even allows people to find some common issues or common ground.
How could libraries navigate misinformation and its influences? How do you think about and treat people how have shared fake news or other misinformation? Have you interacted with someone who shared fake news? How did it go? Have you ever accidentally shared fake news, and how did you find out? What would an informed public look like? Feel free to answer any or all of these questions!
Hanna Roseen is a second year residential MLIS student at the University of Washington with an interest in public librarianship and archives. You can check out her latest project, a sexuality education bookstagram, here.