Truth Decay and information literacy:
As the nation grapples with escalating effects of widespread “Truth Decay”, educators everywhere are asking what we can do to help our students understand how facts can be verified, why respected news sources can typically be trusted, and how to discern a “loud” opinion from important context, and fact.
Librarians lean heavily into the Framework for Information Literacy when designing lessons to support courses. Here are three frames that we often consider when teaching online information evaluation strategies, along with low-stakes activity ideas that can help give students opportunities to practice and consider.
1) Information creation is a process: No matter what format it is in, information is created to convey a message, and shared in specific ways. Understanding how a piece of information was created is key to evaluating it.
- Trace a Claim: Students may not realize that the information they are reading is not original, but based on something else. Help students dig deeper by tracing a claim relevant to your field which appears in popular resources such as news, blogs, or Twitter back to its source. Has anything about their initial reaction to the information changed after finding that initial source? Is there more hedging language in the original scientific paper? Why might that be? Here’s one such exercise by librarians at Michigan State University: https://www.projectcora.org/assignment/introduction-fact-checking
- Apply evaluation skills across formats: We all increasingly consume information in the form of pictures, clips, and podcasts. Encourage your students to examine textual and non-textual resources using similar evaluative criteria. Why might you need to determine why a podcast, image, or research article was created in order to understand whether it is trustworthy in a given context? Can you determine whether there was any editorial process? Can you locate the creator? Here’s a similar exercise that the UD Librarians regularly use: https://library.udel.edu/instruction/engl110infolitlessons/informationformats/evaluationstrategies/
2) Authority is constructed and contextual: Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used.
- Bust Echo chambers: Students often report that to determine if a claim is true, one of their main strategies is to see if other outlets report the same thing. Yet how one constructs such a search for confirmation can impact whether facts, or more echo chambers dominate the results. Find an interesting or controversial claim related to your course content or reading. What happens if you search for information that agrees with the initial claim? What happens if you search using just keywords? Discuss with the class how this phenomenon might impact what information they receive from others on social media.
- Explore many types of authority: It can be helpful to have students look beyond the reputation of a given journal or news publication, and instead ask about the actual voices that are invoked in a given piece of media. For example, using a current news article on a topic, ask groups of students to list each person quoted and say A) what makes the person an authority on the topic? B) How does this source contribute to the overall article? Are any perspectives missing that would have made the article stronger or more interesting? Once students have completed the activity, ask students to think about their own area of research or research topic. Consider what organizations, scholars working in particular disciplines, workers in professions related to the topic may exist, and what kinds of information sources those groups may have created that could be tapped. Here’s an example exercise like this from the UD librarians: https://library.udel.edu/instruction/engl110infolitlessons/evaluatingauthority/sourcetypes/
3) Information has value: Information possesses several dimensions of value: as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world.
Ask students how often they have tried to access an article shared with them through social media and run up against the ubiquitous “Sorry! You have reached your free article limit!” Why does this happen? How do newspapers make money? How do “free” news sites make money? Does it matter or change the way information is found and shared- or by whom? Consider asking students to examine the headlines from several subscription-based news media sources, and the headlines discussing the same event on “free” news platforms. What is different about the two? Here’s an exercise created by librarians at CSU Dominguez Hills that raises some of these questions in an engaging way: https://www.projectcora.org/assignment/access-power-privilege-toolkit-intersections-scholarly-communication-and-information
In addition to some of these ideas and resources, you can find many more on the UD Library, Museums and Press’s newly revised guide, “Busting Fake News: Online Information Evaluation Strategies”. Better yet, reach out to the library teaching team for a consultation about your course and your information literacy goals.