Published: Oct. 13, 2020

In 2020, we have real-time access to a historic amount of information with millions of active websites and billions of active online users. The issue is not about the quantity of information, but about the quality. Who is verifying content and how do we identify reliable sources?

There aren't easy answers to these questions, but there are skills and tools that can help. Librarians call this information literacy. Information literacy can help us identify the context and value of information and help us recognize if it's misleading, out-of-date or false. 

On this episode of "CU at the Libraries," Government Information and Civic Literacy librarian Allan Van Hoye navigates the vast landscape of information and misinformation with Assistant Professor of Advertising, Public Relations & Media Design Toby Hopp and Political Science Associate Professor and Women & Gender Studies Faculty Associate Michaele Ferguson. 

Together, they’ll discuss the significance of information literacy in 2020 and offer tools for how to evaluate the facts presented to you in the classroom, in the media, online, in person or anywhere.

Allan Van Hoye: “Hey, Michaele, hey, Toby, thank you for joining us. The first question that we have today is going to be, how did the digital age change how we go about our research?”

Toby Hopp: “When you think about the digital age, we're thinking about perhaps the last 20 years or so, with the introduction and diffusion of home computing systems and later smartphones. The diffusion of these technologies and the spread of these interconnected digital devices has made information a lot more accessible to us. If you think about research on the level of just a regular person trying to learn about the world around them, there's information that's accessible anytime we want, which is great! The downside is the quality of that information is not always so good. We can find information that confirms our biases, we can find information that misleads us, is used in a way that was unhelpful for democratic purposes, and that can confuse us as consumers. When we think about, what does the digital age mean for research as a regular person, it's a bit of a mixed bag.”

Michaele Ferguson: “So I was a college student and a graduate student in the ’90s and a lot of the research that I did was physically in the library and it involved a lot of photocopying, a lot of photocopying, because there weren't PDFs of articles that you could just take with you. Not having to do that has upsides and downsides.

“It certainly saves me a lot of time to just download journal articles from the comfort of my own home, whenever I want them. But there's an element of serendipity that you lose when you're not doing your research in the actual library. You miss out on finding a book that you didn't even realize existed that's on the shelf next to the one that you were looking for. And, I think that it's kind of a loss that we can't do that, especially right now with COVID-19. We can't even go into Norlin and get a book off the shelf. It's a limit to our research, even as a lot of other things are being made easier.”

AVH: “Something that I think about too is in the past you could go to a library and get journal articles, whereas now a lot of scholarly journal articles are behind paywalls. I think that that's a significant shift in the way that we access research. A lot of times students use Google to access information and run into a paywall. When, if they had gone through the library, they wouldn't have run into that paywall.

“I talk about Google a lot because students, but people in general, really prefer Google as a search engine. And I always try to remind them Google is a product. It's not there for the benefit of your existence. It's there to sell you something. And in some cases, it's selling your own information, and I think that that's a a really important distinction.

“And I think that that kind of leads me to the next question, which is why do you think information, discernment and evaluation have become such a challenge in contemporary information contexts?”

MF: “I was just about to say, it's what Toby has been talking about! It's about the quantity of information that's out there. It used to be that three major networks produced their nightly news hours and most Americans would watch whatever the channel it was that they were used to watching. But they would be getting their news sources from the same groups of people. Now, we actually have so many different news sources available to us—not just the networks and cable TV—different kinds of websites have popped up that have varying degrees of journalism integrated into their missions. So there's just so much to consume that can be really good, but it can be overwhelming.

“But it's also a question of the quality of what we have out there. The kind of media that we have today, whether we're talking about online or a more traditional print media or televisual approaches, is deeply invested in entertainment and the line between media and entertainment is not always clear. That’s, in part, because in order to stay in business, companies need to keep your attention and need to keep your eyeballs on the screen. So there's much more of a confusion, I think, between simply presenting information or presenting a point of view and trying to keep consumers consuming.”

TH: “I think that those are all really important points. I like to think the media environment is sort of an ecosystem. Things go awry, right? And the media ecosystem has suffered really dramatic shocks over the last 15 or 20 years. Newspapers are really in financial trouble, and a lot of that's due to ownership structures and changes to how people consume media. We see the emergence of these really large media conglomerates that own many news properties. We see things like the withdrawal of news organizations from local markets. All of these shocks that have occurred in the media ecosystem have created these incentives for keeping people on [news] platforms. So much of the way that we had maybe previously approached learning about the world around us, through the media, so much of that has been reframed by a variety of different forces. That creates real challenges for the regular person when they attempt to learn about current events and things happening in the world that are important to them.

“So when you think about discernment, the ability to make credibility decisions about the information we consume, there's an emphasis on us having these sorts of new world skills or the ability to have these literacy capabilities that reflect the complex digital environment.”

AVH: “Yeah, absolutely. Adding to that complexity, the ability to access primary scholarly sources cited by those news organizations. Then we take something like COVID-19 that's happening right now, a lot of that research is behind a paywall. I think that makes the idea of fake news—or misinformation—a lot more powerful because the ability to actually fact check sometimes is sometimes behind a paywall. 

“That leads me into the next question: As librarians, we often try to stay away from terminology like fake news and alternative facts. How does the language we use around information affect how we perceive information and misinformation? One of the reasons why I find it problematic is I think that [fake news] gets labeled on things that are maybe not entirely accurate, but not always fake, in the sense that it's not published for misinformation. Sometimes mistakes happen.. Again, going back to the example of COVID-19 research was happening and we were finding out new things every day about how COVID-19 reacted. A lot of times I would see on social media people saying, ‘Oh, that's fake news, because clearly the research is false.’ I think that can become problematic. And again, I wonder what your feelings are on that?”

TH: “I mean, the term fake news does create a variety of different types of problems. Some research has shown that just using the phrase ‘fake news’ frames the traditional news media in such a way that people are less likely to believe it. And so the concept of fake news, or the phraseology, is problematic in that sense. I think most of what we call fake news isn't actually one hundred percent false. It tends to be misleading or hyperpartisan. It omits certain details, but it's not outright untrue. 

“In my research, I've been referring to what we might colloquially call fake news as Countermedia. And the reason is that these sort of ‘low quality,’ fake news organizations... what they're really trying to do is present an alternate or counter version of the reality that's described by the traditional mass media. So with this idea of countering, here's a different way of understanding the world around you and the fact that it's not entirely true doesn't really matter. It’s existing almost in an alternate reality. But that alternate reality is, of course, useful for certain types of politicians and for certain types of policies. I mean, the cat's out of the bag. We're going to have this phrase in popular discourse. I just don't see it going away.”

MF: “So I would think about this a little differently than Toby is thinking about it. When I hear the phrase fake news, what that implies to me is that there is news that is completely true and completely trustworthy. However, what worries me about that kind of language is that if you buy into the idea that a certain subset of information is ‘fake,’ then what you are accepting is that other information is, on its face, true and trustworthy.

“To me, that risks shutting down our critical faculties to actually assess the quality of the information that we're receiving. No matter what, we should be critically challenging all of the information that we take in from whatever sources we're taking it in from.

“Part of the political motivation in labeling somebody’s information as fake is to try to then have the viewer or the listener or the reader understand that me, the person who is calling that stuff fake, I am the one you can trust. My news is the correct news. My news is not biased.I think once we start accepting that a particular news source is true on its face, then we have abdicated our responsibility, as citizens, to really be more critical of what we're hearing and to try to get our information, in part, by thinking for ourselves, rather than trusting that any one source is going to always be correct.

“With the news cycle, stories can sometimes be misreported, or the facts of the story need to be corrected later on as more information becomes learned. And we really want to be able to question whether or not what we learned initially is, in fact, the truth of a situation and not simply abdicate our ability to think critically about what we're consuming.”

AVH: “That is a really powerful point, Michaele, and I think that's a new way for me to think about the idea of fake news. 

“Based on your research and observations about information habits, how are you thinking about the impact of media and online communities in this current presidential election?”

MF: “Right now, we are in the midst of a crazy social experiment, Allan. With people communicating with each other more and more online because of COVID-19, we're partly just going to have to wait and see what the impact is of that on our ability to communicate about political ideas. One of the things that researchers have found over the years is that it's actually easier to depersonalize your opponents, or dehumanize your opponent, treat them as if they're just an enemy rather than a human being, when you're interacting with them online. And so, disagreements online can become really heightened, emotionally, very quickly and really conflictual rather than collaborative, in comparison with face-to-face interactions.

“But the reason why I say we're in a social experiment is because, maybe, as we're doing this more and more, we actually become better at humanizing the faces on our Zoom calls or the people that we're emailing with because we recognize that this is how we have to communicate. So, my expectation is that people will have a harder time dealing with political disagreements in the short run.” 

TH: “I agree. I think, historically, and I think this is still true, the main way that we learn about the world around us in terms of political or large-scale social [issues]is via the media. But of course, the media is many different actors with different incentives. I mean, how does this concept of the media intersect with online communities that form, whether it's on social media or in other ways? These communities help shape our understanding of the news. There are important ways that these communities can shape our political outcomes, both in positive and negative ways.

“When we think about the media, it doesn't influence us directly. It influences us through the conversations that we have with other folks. I think understanding both the media as a provider of information and then the communities that we're involved with in terms of discussion is also shaping our knowledge in important ways.”

AVH: “We’ve been talking a lot about some of the sort of overarching themes when it comes to media and fake news in the election, and I'm wondering if you could say a little bit more about what individual citizens can do to counter the negative impacts of misinformation or counter information, Could you also speak a little bit about to what degree is it an individual citizens responsibility to work against misinformation?”

MF: “I think that it is the citizens’ responsibility and it always has been. There's nothing about the new media environment that makes us less responsible or more responsible now than we would have been a generation or two ago to assess the information that we're receiving and make informed decisions for voting.

“The thing I would say people can do is to really think about how stories that they are reading or considering reposting or retweeting make them feel. There's a phenomenon called confirmation bias, right, where we tend to be biased towards believing information, believing stories, that confirm our world view already. And so if I don't like a particular politician and I read a story that makes me outraged that that particular politician or some crazy thing that he or she did today, then, I should maybe take a step back and say, ‘Well, did that really happen?’ Or is this story trying to make me feel outraged and trying to appeal to me because of views that I already hold? Or, is my response actually, a completely measured, appropriate response to this story? We have a responsibility to think carefully about how we are being entertained by the media that we're consuming,and to think about what that means for which stories we're going to encourage other people to read in our feeds and whether or not we should be putting some context around those stories when we share them.”

TH: “Yeah, I mean, I think the emotionality dimension is really important here. These sources of so-called fake news or disinformation, misinformation, whatever we want to call it, they often use, linguistically, very emotionally evocative words., It’s really seeking to extract from us a strong, affective response. And sometimes the things—to be clear—that we see in the news are going to upset us and make us mad. We want to distinguish between , sort of, upsetting facts and then language that's used purposely to drive an angry, or frustrated, or some other sort of negative emotional state, in us. We're talking about whose responsibility is that? It's everyone’s individual responsibility. But it's also the responsibility of social media platforms, and it's the responsibility of our government. It's a responsibility that we share and that we have to work together to clean up our information environment.

“While the individual citizen, yes, needs to take steps to ensure that they're making decisions based on factual and objective information, we can't say, ‘Ooh, well, the social media platforms have no role in this.’ Or that t, the government has no regulatory responsibilities. It is a shared responsibility. It's a complicated problem. And if we always say that it's someone else's responsibility to fix the problem, then we're never going to fix it.”

AVH: “Thank you. To sort of expand on this idea of what can individuals do, how can communities and institutions of higher education influence and shape the information and environments that we are collectively building?”

MF: “So, I agree with everything that Toby's saying about teaching information literacy and critical thinking. What I would add is that universities are a great place for students to learn about political disagreement and how to engage with different kinds of political views from the ones that they hold. hat is not just an important skill set for engaging in democracy. It's also a part of information literacy. Understanding the different kinds of political positions in our culture can help you to understand what kind of a point of view a particular news story is being written from, or to be able to understand what the motivations might be for a particular opinion writer to be taking a position on an issue. It's not just a question of what's the truth or what the facts are in a story, but it's also about understanding what the ideas are that people hold so dearly that are motivating them to act in a particular kind of a way or to push for a particular set of policies. And that's, I think, a very important role for universities to play.”

TH: “I would just add one thing to that—one important thing that universities do is communicate to students the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, of being a member of society.

“One thing that sometimes worries me with young folks is that there is an expectation that society just recreates itself, that everything goes along and it's all just going to be fine. But the reality is that this might not turn out fine. We have an obligation, as community members and citizens, as members of society, to ensure that this is a good place to live. That responsibility falls on all of us. I hope that that's what we're teaching young folks at the University of Colorado Boulder.”

AVH: “So information literacy is the idea of like we can understand the information that we consume and we can evaluate it in an effective way. I'm wondering if you have some final points or some specific tools that you use when you're consuming media.”

MF: “One of the most important things that I do when I am, especially, looking at down ballot races or looking at ballot initiatives is, first of all, I go to the League of Women Voters website. It's a nonpartisan organization that hosts debates between candidates for local races and that provides nonpartisan information about local issues. Especially for students who may not be up on all of the particular candidates running for city council, it's a really great way to become informed about races that have a significant impact on your life here in Boulder or in Colorado that you might not otherwise be able to find reliable information about. For a lot of local races, you can find candidates websites or information that the candidate is producing themselves, say in response to a query from a local newspaper like The Boulder Daily Camera. But to have that information actually produced by a nonpartisan organization whose aim is to educate voters is totally different.

“I would also say it's important to have at your command some fact checking websites. There are newspapers like The Washington Post that regularly fact check politicians’ statements. But, there are also nonpartisan organizations that will fact check so that you can actually have some sense that the information that you were receiving has been vetted and evaluated by some people who know about those particular issues.”

TH: “Yeah, I mean, I agree with all of that. Voting decisions can oftentimes be very difficult to make. And oftentimes they become most difficult when we're thinking about local candidates. As weird as it sounds the local folks are the ones that have the most immediate effect on our day to day existence. Looking for nonpartisan, locally based sources can really help inform those decisions. 

“More broadly, when I talk about information evaluation to my students, I like to really emphasize this notion of mental buckets. So, we've got these little buckets inside our head and we can put information in these buckets and that can help shape the way that we interpret what's being discussed in this particular bit of information. The first step is, well, what type of source are we dealing with? Is it an academic peer reviewed journal? Is it a large newspaper or is it a local newspaper? Is it partisan media or is it a source that we've never heard of before that using highly evocative emotional language? If we start to separate information on the basis of its type, then we can start to make better decisions about what's trustworthy, what's credible and what may not be.

“We know that the scholarly literature has certain strengths and weaknesses. We know that the newspaper has certain strengths and weaknesses. We know that pseudo-news sites that we've never heard of before that are telling us to be outraged, we probably shouldn't be paying too much attention to them. We know that the partisan media, such as HuffPost or Fox News or whatever it might be, is going to present issues in a pretty slanted way that is designed to report favorably on one party to the detriment of another. Once we start to separate things and put them in buckets, that can shape how we make sense of the information environment.”

AVH: “The points that you all made are really important, butthe point that I really want to focus on is access. I think as libraries, it's really important that we have access to a lot of things that you might not realize. So, for example, we have access through the University Libraries to the Daily Camera in addition to many other major newspapers

“I would say something that's really important to me is realizing that if you are having trouble accessing information, we as librarians can help you gain access to that information without necessarily telling you what's best. That's a decision that you have to make. But we can help you access that information, and it's really important to us. As a government information librarian, the core of my job is to help people access government information. If you need help getting access or finding something, librarians—whether they're academic librarians here at the university, or public librarians—have a real passion for bringing access to the people.”

We know this is a complex topic and it is nearly impossible to address all the nuances. So the libraries have put together a research guide where you'll find research guides on information literacy, critical media and the 2020 election. As a Federal Depository Regional Library, we have a large collection of government documents open to the public. We are happy to help you access information about our democracy.


Producer: Claire Woodcock

Editor: Mark Locy

Music: Nikhil Thapa

Special thanks to Carolyn Sinkinson, Kate Tallman and Carolyn Moreau for consulting on this episode.