Spotting fake news and validating information

The librarian’s role in verifying trust and reliability

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We won’t weigh-in on whether some Macedonian teenagers affected the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election by publishing fake news stories for advertising profit.

We will speak to the broader, ongoing issue of information reliability on the internet.

Improving information literacy

It’s clear that information illiteracy has become a problem. Many people are either unwilling or unable to discern what’s true and reliable in the content they view daily on the internet. That includes the so-called digital natives—millennials and young people coming up behind them who grew up with technology in the palm of their hands.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found that students from middle school through college are not proficient at evaluating information credibility.

After collecting over 7,800 responses across twelve states, they discovered the following shortfalls:

  • Inability to distinguish sponsored content from actual news.
  • Tendency to accept what they see in photographs without verification or attribution.
  • Failure to detect or suspect potential bias.

While their primary goal is teaching academic literacy, and how to work with academic and peer-reviewed sources, academic librarians play an important in role in teaching general information literacy, as do public librarians.

As librarians and researchers ourselves, it’s our responsibility to evaluate sources and to discern quality from junk. We feel we also have an obligation to educate the people and industries we serve in law, business and government at every opportunity.

The internet promised (or threatened, depending on your view) to eliminate the middleman. But it’s becoming clear that agents, brokers, curators, connectors and other so-called middlemen play a crucial role in some areas, helping information seekers discern “good” from “bad” and pointing them in the right direction for the best results for their needs.

Technology’s role in validating and verifying information

programming-942487_640Technology alone is not the answer, but as algorithms are part of the problem, they must be part of the solution as well. For example, instead of isolating and presenting only similar and narrow viewpoints, technology can be used to aggregate different perspectives that show various levels of support, disagreement and conflict.

The GDELT Project is an ambitious undertaking that supports this goal of presenting a more complete view. An acronym for Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone, GDELT contains a quarter billion georeferenced records gathered over the last 30 years from across the globe. GDELT offers a tool called GCAM, or Global Content Analysis Measures, which uses content analysis technology to assess over two thousand dimensions such as Anxiety, Positivity and Perception.

Meanwhile, some content aggregation platforms include basic sentiment-mining tools. Meltwater, for example, allows you to gauge sentiment toward content based on online media coverage that is analyzed for positive, negative or neutral tones.

Technologies like artificial intelligence and bots now seem to be more of the problem by enabling fake news and empowering information illiteracy and confirmation bias. Projects like GDELT show that technology can also contribute to the solution.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us to become more careful and discerning consumers of online information.

How to spot misleading or fake news and information

Following are a few tips to help you assess the validity and trustworthiness of online information:

  • Obtain your news and information from reliable sources you know you can trust, rather than social media networks.
  • Check the TLD or top level domain of the page – the two or three letters that follow the dot. Most top level domains (like .com) can be acquired by anyone. Certain ones – like .edu for education and .gov for government – are restricted. The sheer volume and variety of top level domains now available can make this a challenge – see the current list on the IANA website, which is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.
  • Identify who is behind a suspect website by using a “who is” lookup service. This won’t always be effective, but it could provide one more data point.
  • Check writing style – academic or journalism style will include concrete details that can be verified, rather than language that is vague or purely editorial. Citations and attributions will be included and backed with links to legitimate sources.
  • Look for an About Us page, which will be missing or vague on a suspect website. A legitimate About Us page will confirm credentials and help identify biases and agendas.
  • Look for an author or publisher name and date of publication.
  • Check multiple sources for different points of view.
  • Use fact-checking sites like FactCheck.org, which is a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Above all, don’t be afraid to view what you see online with a healthy dose of skepticism. And when information validity truly matters, look to a librarian or other information expert to help you identify and locate the most reliable resources.

Slowing down to apply sound judgment to what we see and read online is a challenge with the continued growth and speed of the internet. Yet it’s something we must do as we see the consequences of information illiteracy.

The role of content aggregation platforms

Many corporations and law firms are turning to content aggregation platforms not only to manage information overload, but to focus on relevant topics and reliable information sources. LibSource will soon be publishing a paper that offers a high-level overview of these tools, looking at five of the most popular platforms on the market:

  1. InfoNgen
  2. LexisNexis Newsdesk (formerly Moreover Newsdesk)
  3. Manzama
  4. Meltwater
  5. Vable (formerly Linex Systems)

We offer an overview of these five platforms in our report, Nothing but the Relevant Content, which touches on content, features, evaluation considerations and other information.

We are available to assess your technologies, processes, workflow and other information service and knowledge management considerations. Learn more about our Library Roadmapping service.