Fighting fake news: a frank conversation with Nicole A. Cooke

Nicole A. Cooke, a Library Journal Mover & Shaker, believes that the current flood of fake news and dubious information represents a golden opportunity for libraries. Her new ALA Editions Special Report Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era shows how librarians can make a difference. In this interview she talks about why information literacy is a key skill for all news consumers.

Information literacy seems to be one of those perpetually timeless topics, and there are dozens of books about it out there already. What motivated you to write this book, and how did you take a fresh approach to the topic?  

I was an academic instruction librarian before becoming faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so I have worked with information literacy strategies for a long time, and I have read many of the books! I am also an information behavior scholar (I.e., how  people seek, avoid, and use information). Information literacy is absolutely a form of information seeking and use which has a particular emphasis on pedagogy, in that we are trying to instruct people how to be better and more efficient information evaluators and consumers. Specifically, I have been long been interested in affective information behavior (how emotions impact people’s information behaviors and patterns).

As fake news reached its fever pitch I saw really intelligent people sharing fake news on social media, not because their intelligence failed them in any way, but because they were personally invested in the message and/or the person/source of the information. Another thing that I noticed is that people shared chart from IFLA showing how to spot fake newsinformation without reading the content, which is a result of trusting a source, but is also indicative of information overload, or being inundated with information and not always knowing how to deal with it our parse it out in such a way that automatically weeds out the bad stuff. The plethora of information also makes it easy to dismiss or avoid information that makes them angry, fearful, frustrated, uncomfortable in any way.

I wrote this book because I wanted to explore the emotional/affective investment people have in the information they consume and share, and see if that exploration can impact how information professionals teach and learn about fake news.

When it comes to strong research and evaluation skills, are there generational differences between kids and their parents?

I think so, but I think kids and their parents have more in common than not, particularly when it comes to the emotional investments in messages or groups, and their capacities to be better and savvier consumers of information. I think the main differences manifest in the mode of delivery and consumption of information – meaning kids likely spend more time online and have many more online sources and apps to consult. Their parents may still be reading newspapers and watching television news and may have a better sense of source credibility. Of course, there are exceptions to all these rules!  

The ease with which many of us are hoodwinked by phony information seems directly tied to the sheer glut of information that bombards us all day long. What advice can you offer to help people be more discerning about what information they consume?

  • Be skeptical and don’t take everything you see at face value. A lot of us are very entranced in filter bubbles and echo chambers (i.e., we so carefully curate our information and social media feeds, we miss a lot of information, including conflicting information). It’s easy to fall into a lull that convinces us that we’re receiving quality information all the time. We need to read more broadly.
  • Take the time to examine the information before absorbing it; question it. Manually inspect the information, as opposed to relying on browser plug-ins and other tools designed to automatically detect fake news.
  • Also, question your reaction to the information. Are you dismissing it because it’s not factual or comes from an unfamiliar source, or because it makes you uncomfortable?

What are a few telltale signs that a “news” story you’re reading online may not be news at all?

  • Extravagant headlines – headlines that use flowery, inflammatory, and/or absolutist words.
  • Ask yourself: have I seen the story anywhere else? Triangulation (finding the story in at least 3 places) can help us determine whether a story is fake.
  • Trust your gut. Does something seem off or unbelievable about the story? Check the date on the story. Ask yourself: do I recognize the website? Is the site overrun with ads?
  • Click the link! Take the time to read the story before sharing it and see what it’s all about. Clickbait headlines usually don’t match the content.
  • If you’re still not sure, check the hoax busting and fact checking sites.

People don’t necessary appreciate being told that the article they just read was actually made up. How book cover for Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Eracan library staff share methods to help library users think critically about information without offending or irritating them?

I think being proactive is something that will work in our favor here. If we can share informal strategies and techniques for information evaluation (such as displaying the posters and infographics in the back of the report) we can work towards keeping ideas in the forefront of people’s minds. So, the next time they see something questionable, they might remember that dramatic and/or absolutist headlines are fishy, and that might lead them to check the date of the article or look to see if it appears someplace else. Just as we do passive programming, dealing with fake news lends itself to passive education; and we can of course continue to conduct instruction sessions and workshops.

Another way to address this is not to approach susceptibility to fake news as a deficit (e.g., you fell for the hoax because you didn’t know any better); rather, we might approach it from the angle that fake news, misinformation, and disinformation are increasingly sophisticated and are so pervasive, it’s hard to negotiate everything we come across. We’ve all been victims of fake news at one time or another. It’s another area that requires our vigilance and attention.

Learn more in the new ALA Editions Special Report.