Libraries are more essential than ever in this era of fake news—an era in which the President of the United States, the Washington Post estimated, makes an average of more than 6.5 false or misleading claims a day; an era in which more than 80% of middle school students, in a Stanford University study, said they believed that ads labeled “sponsored content” were real news stories.
Libraries are needed to help the public find and identify trustworthy content amidst the overwhelming flood of data we are pelted with every day. And a 2016 Pew survey indicates that Americans do, in fact, appreciate this vital service: 78% of adults said they feel that public libraries help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable; and that percentage is even higher among millennials (87%).
Librarians, like educators and journalists, are ideally equipped to teach “information literacy”: how to distinguish between facts and what one Trump aide has called “alternative facts;” how to evaluate the sourcing in an article and an author’s credentials; how to differentiate between peer-reviewed scientific surveys and more speculative, anecdotal studies; how to locate information that’s been fact-checked by reputable organizations like Snopes and PolitiFact.
In teaching media awareness, it can be useful to provide some context: that is, alert people to the isolating effect of “filter bubbles” on the web; and the insidious pull of “confirmation bias”—the human tendency to gravitate towards information that ratifies already-held beliefs. Also: teach library users to think about the motives that creators of fake news (for instance, Russian trolls) might have in spreading propaganda, and the likely consequences of their lies.
Such knowledge is more important than ever. Thomas Jefferson—whose own library helped re-establish the Library of Congress, after its original collection was incinerated in an 1814 fire—fervently believed that reason and truth were foundation stones of democracy, and that “the information of the people at large, can alone make them” safe, as they are the sole “depository of our political & religious freedom.”
Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic for The New York Times, is the author of the forthcoming book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram.