Fall is here. Pumpkin spice surrounds us. Cool weather, changing leaves, and crisp breezes remind us of the changing of seasons. With these pleasant autumnal reminders can come many unpleasant counterparts, too: anxiety, familial tension, strained friendships and political messaging ad nauseum. Yes, election season has arrived.
This marks my fourth presidential election cycle while being of voting age and already I’ve become disenchanted. I recall the 2004 election because it seemed ever-so-exciting to be a new part of the democratic system, but now it seems to have become a chore… and my feelings are not unique. Voter turnout has been mediocre at best (around 60% for the last 4 presidential elections) and I often see bumper stickers and yard signs supporting “Any Functioning Adult 2020”. People are as divided as ever. And news and social media continue to spread misinformation, disinformation or poor interpretations of information faster than any pandemic could.
But all is not lost. Librarians like myself are here; we continue to try our best to refer to and encourage others to seek beacons of real, accurate and fair information. I hesitate to even mention this term, but if there’s one thing that is damaging our political, social, and familial lives, it’s fake news. I should emphasize that librarians hold a tricky position in election years. We both want to uphold one’s right to freedom of speech, but we must temper that inclination by highlighting those uses of speech that run afoul. Libraries of all kinds contain information of all kinds, meaning some material isn’t always sensitive, helpful or even accurate. As a nonpolitical example, the Library’s collection includes the title A Practical Guide to Small Computers for Business and Professional Use, published in 1981. How accurate and helpful do you believe the information in that book will be to current-day computer users? Why is a book like this kept?
Simply put, it’s an historical object. It can offer insight about a moment of early personal computing that might otherwise be lost. And libraries do the same with objectively offensive political tracts and manifestos, such as Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (both of which can be found in several Ohio libraries, if not at TLCPL). Some libraries house materials like this because their impact, in part, is still strong and relevant in today’s moment. And, more relevant to my point, their publications enacted massive political and cultural ramifications that are still relevant today.
Information in the 21st century travels instantly, whether that information is true, incomplete or patently false. It’s more difficult than ever to discern how trustworthy an article, video or factoid is, especially with the rise of deepfakes. The worst part: everyone is susceptible to misinformation, to a degree, due to human nature. Frequently, we instinctively trust information offered to us as true. That may occur in part due to trusted sources or perhaps because the information aligns with what we already (want to) believe: “of course water boils faster when you add salt. I’ve done that for years.”
If you’d like to confront your inner assumptions and hone your inner fact-checker, there is a veritable ocean of tools at your disposal. Even if you feel you’ve mastered the skill, though, there’s always more to learn. That said, please explore the following resources:
Online Learning Resources
Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers … and Other People Who Care About Facts by Mike Caulfield
This eBook is a great resource for going beyond the ordinary assumptions about how to fact check. The author stresses the importance for deep investigation of sources. He runs the Digital Polarization Project which is a “cross-institutional initiative to improve civic discourse by developing web literacy skills in college undergraduates.”
The News Literacy Project
As an educational nonprofit, the News Literacy Project offers multiple resources for educators and the general public to better identify misleading journalism. Their curriculum, Checkology, is free to use for anyone who’d like to improve their skill at identifying credible information and seeking out reliable sources. I’m a personal fan of their e-newsletter, The Sift.
Project Look Sharp
This endeavor hosted by Ithaca College intends to help educators at all levels with skills in media literacy. One of their best features is located at the top of the webpage: ‘Free Classroom Materials’. On their site you can even sort their materials by how they adhere to Common Core Standards.
Center for News Literacy
The Center for News Literacy is operated by Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aiming to “help students of all ages recognize the differences between fact and rumor, news and advertising, news and opinion, and bias and fairness,” this is a great place for anyone interested to start improving their skill in detecting propaganda and misinformation.
The Poynter Institute’s initiative focuses on “3 pillars”: “Gen Z,” “First-Time Voters,” and “Seniors.” If you’re not included in one of those 3 groups, please don’t despair. Poynter also fact-checs media outlets and statements, and their results can be found here.
Online Sources Where the Work Is Done for You
If you’re looking for quick and accurate information about an event, then this is the place to check. This site provides excellent information, avoids bias and provides context to statements which might be factual yet misleading. Furthermore, anyone can request a fact check.
A part of the Poynter Institute, PolitiFact is clearly laid out and easy to use. The homepage displays a “Truth-o-Meter” to indicate how accurate checked statements are. For example, a statement of “Mostly False” means that the initial statement isn’t a total lie but is misleading or leaves out some very important details (a frequent result when it comes to social media claims).
Beginning in 1994 and at first focused on folklore and urban legends, Snopes is probably one of the oldest internet fact-checking websites. It operates independently and now fact checks a wide variety of information. Snopes has gained a reputation as being reliable and trustworthy. I also appreciate one of their verdict selections, “Unproven”, as they’re willing to admit some things are simply beyond the scope of proof.
Please find further reading below.
One thing about all of the above resources — their goals are similar. They want to help ordinary people become skilled in separating fact from fiction. Misinformation and lack of information hurts everyone, especially in a democracy. As Gore Vidal, writer and politician, stated, “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it’s the same half.” To be knowledgeable about our choices this election season is to disarm the traps, pop our filter bubbles, and parse fact from opinion.