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How Libraries Are Fighting Fake News

Fake news is as old as Bigfoot. But social media and the president have fueled its recent proliferation.

People using computers in a library.
(FlickrCC/Montgomery County Public Libraries)
Less than seven miles from the White House, where President Trump has popularized the term "fake news," residents in a suburban Maryland library gathered recently to learn how to not be duped themselves.

“Social media is a common theme here because you see things being shared over and over again,” Ryan O’Grady, media producer and director of the Maryland State Library Resource Center, told the audience. “Just because something is popular doesn’t make it true.”

The program, which O’Grady is running at several libraries in Maryland’s Montgomery County, is in response to the recent explosion of unverified, unsourced and sometimes untrue information that purports itself as news. The program aims to educate residents about how to spot fake news.

While it's not a recent phenomenon -- the Bigfoot myth goes back centuries, and fabricated stories abounded when emailing was new, for example -- fake news played a prominent role in the 2016 presidential election and continues to do so in the new administration. Sites like Facebook and Twitter give fake news outlets a platform to reach more people than they would otherwise be able to. Once the misinformation is out there, it can spread quickly, often before users even read or verify a story.

The president himself has shared fake news on social media and accused credible, mainstream media outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times, as being fake news. 

All this has led to a discussion among public libraries -- charged with promoting education, literacy and culture in their communities -- about what their role should be in helping citizens navigate this overwhelming information landscape.

“We’re not in the business of disrespecting anyone,” says Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association. “The authority of the president of the strongest country in the world needs to be protected. But we have to think about facts and information now more critically than ever.”

Across the country, libraries are tackling the subject in various ways.

Like Montgomery County, Derry Public Library in New Hampshire hosted an educational program for residents this month. Todaro, who is also the Austin Community College Dean of Library Services, says her staff has been updating an information literacy webinar to address emerging phrases like “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, most libraries have issued fact sheets on how to spot fake news or have worked one-on-one with residents who have sought help.

Mary Ellen Icaza, Montgomery County Libraries’ community services administrator, says the library system decided to host O’Grady’s talk at several branches because they’d had numerous requests on the topic.

“The concept of fake news has exploded with the digital age,” she says, “and it’s more difficult for people to discern whether what they’re seeing is coming from a reputable source.”

To verify news, O'Grady told residents to start by Googling the article’s author, referring to primary sources the article uses and checking to see if other outlets have also reported the story.

“If there is only one place you’re finding that information,” O’Grady says, “I can almost guarantee it’s not true.”

Fake news, of course, isn't the only thing people need to watch out for. Libraries also want readers to be skeptical of satire websites, such as The Onion, and state news sites controlled by oppressive governments, like Russia Today.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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