Tools for fighting fake news

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on April 3, 2017

Mount Allison librarian provides guidelines for making sure of news’ truthiness

Mount Allison Librarian Jeff Lilburn does research on alternative media and often participates in Dr. Erin Steuter’s class on alternative media. His tips for fighting fake news were presented by Erin Steuter on Saturday, March 25, 2017, at Conserver House in Fredericton, after her talk on Fake News.

In his presentation, Lilburn pointed out the role of libraries and librarians in schools which have a respectable reputation and promote life-long learning. Librarians can provide lists of known fake news sites, a fake news detector, and news organizations that have reality check type alerts for news. Librarians are calling for media/information/news literacy teaching and programs, which are present in Library Guides.

Lilburn suggests people read like fact-checkers. Librarians have created many checklists to categorize information. The aptly named “CRAAP” Test, asks readers to check the currency (timeliness), relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of news pieces. Similarly, the “PROVEN” Test helps people determine the purpose, relevance, objectivity, verifiability, expertise, and newness. For example, the “Process of Establishing Integrity Checklist” by Susan Maret, a professor of Information Studies, focuses on authority, design and usability and the message of the news article, in order to think critically about what is being read.  

Lilburn says that the fundamental thing is to look at the story: its author, where it was published (pay attention to the URL!), the evidence provided. The public needs to read beyond the headline, and look at writing style and web design, pay attention to how one feels as a reader (strong reactions are essential!). The best idea is to verify information by reading from multiple sources.

Websites have started to help readers wade through this often tedious work. The website Snopes calls itself, “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation” and its “Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors” website shows if something is “unproven.” Similarly, FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Readers can ask questions on the website about the credibility of news reports. Other websites include: Politifact.com, Washington Post Fact Checker and, for Canada, FactsCan.ca (updates are not consistent). There are currently 114 fact-checking initiatives in 47 different countries.

Other initiatives include attempts to archive materials from the seemingly ephemeral world wide web. This includes the Wayback Machine, a site that aims to archive all old web pages and Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge machine, which does some comparative checks for debunking news. Images can be checked using the Reverse Image Search on sites like TinEye. These sites use the URL to track a picture. This is especially useful with the Photoshop work that can be done to alter images. Lilburn’s presentation included this type of sample pictures. There are also “labelling browser plug-ins” that can be directly uploaded to the browser you use (Chrome, Firefox, etc). One such tool is the BS Detector which puts a red header at the top of the news story in your browser.

Lilburn says users should generally be aware of search engines and social media sites. He suggests turning off the personalized search option in Google or using search engines that don’t track your information such as DuckDuckGo. The information stored by these websites can influence what you see on social media.

Lilburn says the public also needs to adjust from our Facebook information tendencies, provided by algorithms and friends, and get our news from elsewhere. Websites like Allsides.com tout themselves as providing news from multiple perspectives. No such websites exist in NB.

The public is under the impression that mainstream is reliable and objective but should ask itself if there is a corporate agenda and whether it is as problematic as a political agenda. Alternative and independent media provide counterpoints to corporate mainstream press. Fact checking sites also have limitations, such as their politics. Checklists can be problematic because hoax sites can pass checklist sites, occasionally and some analysis flags websites like DemocracyNow! as “not trustworthy.”

Researcher Vanessa Otero made a graph of U.S. news sources which shows some elements of independence and “outrageousness.” Her chosen criteria are political (liberal to conservative) and journalistic standards (clickbait to complex analysis). The cluster at the centre were all mainstream news organizations. Because it demonized independent media, the website Infowars contested Otero’s graph and built their own, showing tyranny to freedom on the horizontal axis and state-run/corporate/foreign influences to independent on the vertical axis. This shows the endless debate.

Do people really want to know what is true and what is lies in their news feed? Lilburn thinks they do but there is no simple band aid solution to wading through the heaps of articles, links and videos. The public must read carefully and critically with skepticism, follow up on linked sources, and consult primary sources. It needs to recognize good journalism, through organizations that ascribe to Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Guidelines, for example. For Lilburn, the public needs to support good journalism, such as The Guardian (U.K.) and the NB Media Co-op, and use public resources like libraries to their full extent.

For more information on tools, go to Lilburn’s Mount Allison website.

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