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Teaching Information Literacy In a World of Fake News

Kurt Wittig, Librarian, Dover Campus
5 December 2017

Dover Campus Main Library

Information believability has changed since we were kids, as has research. Some of us were lucky enough to have a set of encyclopedias in our homes. At the time, having a set of encyclopedias was akin to having the knowledge of the universe in twenty six volumes. World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica informed school assignments and our teachers must have bemoaned our myopic view of research topics. Encyclopedias were so common, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, began his business career selling encyclopedias door to door in Honolulu in 1962 (Knight). After 244 years, Encyclopedia Britannica published their last print edition in 2010 (McCarthy). Times have changed.

Around the turn of the millennium online sources began to gain prominence in schools. Educators concerned with students believing everything they read online, turned to the tragic plight of the Pacific Tree Octopus and California’s devastating velcro crop decline to dupe students into critical thinking and source evaluation. Graphs, enhanced photographs, tables, testimonials, FAQ’s, and false bibliographies were enough in the early Noughts to confuse students into believing that maybe, just maybe, the Pacific Tree Octopuses actually were endangered or the lack of rain and the flourishing flaccidity virus was truly decimating California’s velcro crop (Zapato; Umbach). Times have changed.

The need for source evaluation has moved beyond the confines of academia and into every waking moment. For some, our waking moment each morning consists of looking at one’s phone notifications. Rest assured our digital natives, our kids born in the age of the Internet are media fluent. Our students can tweet, post, share, streak, blog, like, tap, connect, pin, upload, and view nearly simultaneously with complete comprehension of the information they’re consuming. Not exactly.

In November 2016 the Stanford Graduate School of Education published a study measuring students’ ability to judge the credibility of online content (Donald). More than 80% of the middle school students surveyed could not correctly identify “sponsored content” from a real news story (Stanford History Education Group and Robert R. McCormick Foundation 10). The study found 40% of high school students ignored the source of a meme posted on Imgur and argued the photoshopped image was a credible reference for radiation levels near the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan (17). The study also surveyed undergraduate students from three universities including Stanford, known for its 94% undergraduate applicant rejection rate (3). More than two thirds of undergraduate students did not explain how tweeted content from a political action organization would bias the content of the tweet (23). The study started collecting data in January 2015, before 'fake news' was a politically charged term (3). Up until the study was published, academic level source evaluation was not applied to social media. Now, the basic tenets of CRAAP (Currency, Relevancy, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) are applied to social media consumption in addition to recognizing the strategies of fake news curators.

How does fake news become believable? There is no set formula, and successful fake articles build on assumptions and forgotten specifics (Carey). Benedict Carey of the New York Times states “false initial connection” and repetition can be particularly effective. A given example, “Was Obama a Muslim… I seem to remember that...” Confirmation bias may occur when a trusted media outlet is biased (Jeffries et al. 538). Other than emotive language and skewed statistics, how are we to know our trusted news source is biased? Vanessa Otero, a patent attorney and blogger, created a media chart mapping out where news outlets fall on the spectrum of reliability (Fig 1). Her media chart represents the overall quality of news sources paired with where outlets fall on the political spectrum. Otero’s work is a springboard for discussion, students note the low authority of blogs and the emotive language she uses. However, her visual representation gives pause for reflection.

A chart on 'What, Exactly, Are We Reading?'

Fig. 1 Otero, The Chart, Version 3.0: What, Exactly, Are We Reading?, 2017

At UWCSEA information literacy is a part of the written and taught curriculum. Middle and High School students learn how to spot unreliable sources online; examine the URL, check the contact page, examine author’s credentials, read the article closely, scrutinize the sources, look at the ads, triangulate information, and check for ‘sponsored content’ (Kessler). Students at all grade levels learn how to access and navigate databases to locate authoritative sources. Primary School students learn to keep a bibliography of all works consulted in their research. Grade 5 students proudly display their bibliographies during the Grade 5 Expo. IB students learn to evaluate their sources by looking at the author’s professional credentials, analyzing the research methodology, and identifying possible biases, weaknesses, or strengths of the source. Students see strategies to create a dynamic workflow between research, essay planning, writing, and citing.

All Middle and High school students maintain bibliographies in Modern Language Association (MLA) style to demonstrate where their ideas originate. By the end of Middle School, students begin citing their references in research assignments. IB students use university level databases (EBSCO, ProQuest, JSTOR) to locate peer reviewed and scholarly articles to complete their Extended Essays, Internal Assessments, and TOK Essay. Depending on the subject, IB students cite and reference in Chicago, MLA, or American Psychological Association (APA) style. The end result of the information literacy curriculum is for UWCSEA graduates to thrive in University. When their university peers struggle with research assignments, our IB graduates will have already experienced a properly referenced 4000 word research essay and countless research assignments demanding APA, MLA, or Chicago referencing styles. Times have changed, and our students are prepared for the times ahead.

Works Cited

Carey, Benedict. "How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia, 20 Oct. 2017, Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.
Donald, Brooke. "Stanford Researchers Find Students Have Trouble Judging the Credibility of Information Online | Stanford Graduate School of Education." Stanford Graduate School of Education |, Stanford University, 22 Nov. 2016, Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.
Jeffries, Shellie, et al. "Says who? Librarians tackle fake news." College & Research Libraries News, vol. 78, no. 10, 2017, pp. 538-545, Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
Kessler, Glen. "The Fact Checker’s Guide for Detecting Fake News." Washington Post, 22 Nov. 2016,
Knight, Philip H. "1962." Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, Kindle ed., Scribner, 2016.
McCarthy, Tom. "Encyclopedia Britannica Halts Print Publication After 244 Years." The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 Sept. 2017, Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.
Otero, Vanessa. "The Chart, Version 3.0: What, Exactly, Are We Reading? – All Generalizations Are False." All Generalizations Are False – Just Another WordPress Site, 8 Nov. 2017, Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
Stanford History Education Group, and Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Evaluating Information: the Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford:, 2016.
Umbach, Ken. "California's Velcro Crop Under Challenge." Umbach Consulting & Publishing, Dec. 1996, www Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.
Zapato, Lyle. "Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus." Zapato Productions Intradimensional, 17 May 2015, Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.