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Monday, August 14, 2017

Local librarian fights spread of fake news

Finding the truth in era of fake news

Joanna M. Burkhardt, a librarian and professor at URI. 
Photo by Michael Salerno.

Fake news is flooding the Internet, making it tough to distinguish right from wrong.

Joanna M. Burkhardt, a University of Rhode Island librarian and professor, is on a crusade to help people find the truth—and that includes students.

This summer, she spoke at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Chicago, and was recently interviewed about fake news for a podcast by American Libraries.

Her article, “Combating Fake News in the Digital Age,” will be in “Library Technology Report” this fall, and last year her book came out, “Teaching Literacy Reframed: 50+ Framework-Based Exercises for Creating Information-Literate Learners.”

“I’ve been busy,” says Burkhardt, “This is important. Students need to be careful today about how they use information and pass it along.”

URI chatted with Burkhardt about fake new and its future.

Why is fake news spreading today?

People are drawn to the sensational, the unusual and the unlikely. Social media newsfeeds thrive on those kinds of stories. The problem is that the information supplied in the newsfeed is not necessarily true. An alarming number of people share links without having read beyond the headlines, causing fake news to spread.
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In your view, what was the worse fake news story of the 2016 presidential campaign?

There were so many incidents of fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s hard to choose the worst. One that stands out in my mind is the fake news that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant. A man who believed this drove from North Carolina to the restaurant and threatened patrons and employees at gunpoint while searching for the underground rooms and tunnels used by the sex ring. He could easily have hurt or killed someone because he believed a fake news story.

What do bots and algorithms have to do with the explosion of bogus news?

Bots and algorithms are software designed to collect information. Bots can be programmed to act like people. They can send out friend requests, post items on their accounts and share links with friends and followers. If you accept a friend request from someone you don’t know, it could easily be a bot. Bot networks can flood social media with fake news, causing that news to reach a trending status. Humans then continue the spread of fake news because it is trending, not because it is true.

Why is it so hard to refute false stories?

Psychologically, we tend to remember the first thing we hear about a topic, even if it is not true. The more often we hear it, the better we remember it. And long after the event, we tend to remember the misinformation as true, even if it was corrected. Corrections tend to repeat the misinformation in the first message to explain why it isn’t true. That makes the false story stick in our minds even as it is being refuted.

What tips can you and other librarians offer to students who want the truth?

Be skeptical. Not everything on social media is true. Don’t share or like until you have read the content of the link. Check the author’s credentials. Do not rely on information from anonymous sources. Use fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact. Compare sources. If it sounds dubious, check for the same information on a known legitimate news site.

Why is it important for students entering the workplace to recognize deceitful stories?

Employers want to hire people who know how to find reliable information and use it appropriately. To do a good job you need to be able to identify reliable and accurate information. Outside of the workplace if you find and share a fake news story, oh well. Inside the workplace you may be asked to find information. If you supply false or inaccurate information that is then used to make business decisions, the consequences can be very serious for you and the business.

What’s the future of fake news?

I do not see the fake news trend ending anytime soon. Bots are being programmed to be more sophisticated and harder to detect. They are already being used to influence the actions and decisions of humans. Technology built to identify and shut down bots and bot networks is in its infancy. I think it is up to the individual to protect themselves from fake news.

Where can students go for information about how to avoid misinformation?


Students can do what they always do—Google “avoiding fake news.” Use Snopes, Politifact and FactCheck to verify the news. Take a course in information or media literacy. The URI library offers three, 3-credit courses in information literacy. Many university, school and public libraries offer workshops and talks about how to avoid fake news. The URI library website has many guides that help students through the process of finding and evaluating information. Ask a librarian. It’s what we do!