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Fake News and the Myth of Library Neutrality
by Darcy I. Gervasio

Abstract:
Librarians are boldly combatting fake news, but the myth of library neutrality can hinder digital literacy and inadvertently perpetuate disinformation. This article draws on the theories of critical literacy and radical reference to question whether neutrality is possible and encourages librarians to embrace the political and affective aspects of fake news.

The question arises like clockwork. I’m leading a workshop or webinar on fake news. I have shared tips for fighting fake news, the financial incentives behind clickbait, and historical context showing fake news is nothing new. I try to interject humor by using current examples of false stories and memes for participants to fact-check. Some are satirical, some are sensational with a grain of truth, some are utterly unbelievable, while others are frighteningly plausible. And then a participant in the audience--typically a veteran librarian of a certain age--asks The Question: “Do you have any neutral examples of fake news?”

Of course, non-political examples of fake news exist. Snopes.com has sections for hoaxes, urban legends, and celebrity rumors. Conspiracy theories and phony websites hawking cancer cures abound on the Internet. Snake oil salesmen and tabloid gossip are the “original” fake news, after all. I could provide dozens of non-political fake news articles, but doesn’t that miss the point?

Fake news is so insidious because is it designed expressly to provoke strong emotions, particularly disgust, fear, and outrage. If all our examples are apolitical, then we are not teaching our patrons the affective component of media literacy, i.e. paying attention to how an article makes them feel. Using examples that don’t make participants sit up in their seats undercuts the provocative intention of fake news.

Unquestionably, fake news exists across the political spectrum. But the existence of bias in the news media is not why journalists, academics, and average citizens are so troubled by the rise of fake news. The “post-truth era” is disturbing because when a government or powerful media organization casts truth aside and doubles down on small lies (e.g.: the size of the presidential inauguration crowd), it makes it easier for people to ignore the bigger lies and throw up their hands, saying “It’s just politics. No one can know for sure!”[1] Undermining the free press by convincing the public that the truth is unknowable is a classic propaganda technique of tyrants.[2] Unfortunately, the notion of library neutrality tacitly enables that agenda.

Neutrality in libraries is a myth

Is it even possible for libraries to remain “neutral” when news, science, and scholarship are more heavily politicized than ever before? The book Questioning Library Neutrality came out in 2008,[3] so this perennial issue is not new. In fact, it was raised again within the last year in both Library Journal[4] and School Library Journal[5] in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Cory Eckert explains: “libraries have throughout their history shown bias in explicit and subtle ways--from material selection and categorization of books to strident support of anti-censorship and privacy legislation.”[6] Advocates of radical reference and social justice librarianship like Eckert contend that neutrality is both impossible and undesirable.[7]

Given the shifting views of many in the profession, why do some still cling to the ideal of neutrality? There are many individual and institutional reasons, including: 1) librarians internalized these ideals in graduate school, 2) the concept of neutrality is engrained in popular notions of what a library should be as well as in the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights[8], and 3) librarians are afraid of upsetting their patrons or losing funding.

How neutrality enables fake news

I understand the librarian who asked for neutral fake news examples. She wants to make everyone feel welcome, not alienate her audience. She wants to show that critical evaluation of information is always important, regardless of partisan politics. But there are many reasons--both practical and philosophical--why staying neutral doesn’t work when teaching about fake news.

Firstly, even “neutral” topics like science, health, or sports are easily politicized. Look at the stir caused by NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to support Black Lives Matter. Or the polarization around the life-saving HPV vaccine. According to a report by The Independent, three of the top five most-shared articles on Facebook containing “HPV” in the headline were declared "false” by Snopes.[9] Perhaps this is why requests for neutral examples are so frequent: once you dig deeper, almost any story--real or fake--has a political slant.

From a pedagogical perspective, using only apolitical examples of misinformation makes for a less engaging class. Asking workshop participants to fact-check current fake news stories and memes is a great way to put digital literacy into practice. But “neutral” stories like hoaxes, urban legends, and phony medical cures tend to be too obvious. Using well-known, widely-debunked conspiracies (i.e. “the moon-landing was faked”), will bore your audience. Instead, you need examples that provoke an emotional response and make participants question what they think they know. Plus, people encounter fake and sensationalized news every day on social media, so it’s better to show realistic examples of viral fake news than lesser-known hoaxes irrelevant to their everyday life.

Beyond practical considerations, the bigger problem is that the myth of neutrality passively perpetuates fake news. As I mentioned earlier, one explicit purpose of fake news is to saturate the information landscape until readers no longer know what’s true. By claiming that “all sides are the same” or that libraries have a duty to remain politically neutral, we grant false information the same weight as the truth. We silently participate in blurring the lines between propaganda and provable fact.

Enter critical literacy and radical reference, two theoretical lenses that can replace neutrality with something more constructive. In a nutshell, radical reference is the idea that reference is not confined to a traditional desk or building; that reference can be a site for activism/social justice; and that neutrality is not desirable or even possible.[10] Performing radical reference does not have to be grandiose! It can mean using search results to gently push against a patron’s pre-conceived biases, ensuring that diverse readers “see themselves” in library collections,[11] serving kids free lunch in the summers,[12] or providing fact-checking services during conventions, rallies, and other events.[13]

We can also think about fake news in terms of critical information literacy, an educational theory that infuses critical pedagogy into information literacy. Critical literacy opposes the corporatization of education, prioritizes inquiry and reflection over rote memorization, and views information literacy as a mindset (critical consciousness) rather than a set of discrete skills.[14] [15] Critical literacy also focuses on affect[16]--how learning makes students feel--and recognizes the economic, social, and political power structures behind information.[17]
Critical literacy and radical reference can serve as alternatives to the doctrine of neutrality and as a roadmap for how we address the problem of fake news through library instruction. This can be done in a way that accounts for partisan bias without being apolitical or neutral. When I lead fake news teach-ins at my college, I discuss the economics of clickbait. To show how fake news plays on our emotions, I include fake news examples from across the political spectrum. My (mostly) liberal college students come to the workshop expecting Trump memes, but they are surprised to find posts from Occupy Democrats containing misinformation and sensationalized facts. Giving “equal time” to all sides is not always possible and can lead to false equivalence,[18] but I prefer a balanced instructional approach to one that seeks exclusively politically-neutral stories.
Librarians are righteously taking on the scourge of fake news, but to do so effectively, we must reevaluate long-held beliefs about library neutrality. As the institutions with the most experience and deepest understanding of the information landscape, libraries have a special duty to present facts as facts, without giving equal time, shelf space, or server space to misinformation and propaganda. To meet the pernicious challenge of fake news, let’s dispense with the myth of neutrality and instead teach to the nuances. We must show people that information has value and truth is knowable, even if it’s complex. We must ramp up critical literacy and teach skepticism and critical thinking as a mindset, rather than a series of discrete skills that fit neatly on an infographic. Finally, we must stop being afraid of controversy. Sometimes you have to raise emotions in order to raise awareness. That’s what librarians are good at: calm, thoughtful, evidence-based resistance.

Copyright 2017 by Darcy I. Gervasio.

About the author:
Darcy I. Gervasio is the Coordinator of Reference Services at Purchase College, SUNY in Westchester, New York, where she also serves as liaison librarian for various social sciences. Her research interests include virtual reference, critical literacy, and assessment. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and French from Oberlin College and an MA in Library & Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin--Madison.

[1] Xavier Marquez, “This Is Why Authoritarian Leaders Use the ‘Big Lie,’” Washington Post, January 26, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/01/26/this-is-why-authoritarian-leaders-use-the-big-lie/.
[2] Robert Reich, “7 Warning Signs Present When Tyrants Try to Hijack Democracies,” February 25, 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/02/25/robert-reich-lie-exaggerate-blame-here-are-7-warning-signs-of-tyranny_partner/.
[3] Alison M. Lewis, ed., Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (Library Juice Press, 2008), http://libraryjuicepress.com/neutrality.php.
[4] Stephanie Sendaula, “Libraries Are Not Neutral Spaces: Social Justice Advocacy in Librarianship | ALA Annual 2017,” Library Journal, July 7, 2017, http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2017/07/shows-events/ala/libraries-are-not-neutral-spaces-ala-annual-2017/.
[5] Cory Eckert, “Libraries Are Not Neutral | Opinion,” School Library Journal, August 12, 2016, http://www.slj.com/2016/08/opinion/libraries-are-not-neutral-opinion/.
[6] Eckert.
[7] Melissa Morrone and Lia Friedman, “Radical Reference: Socially Responsible Librarianship Collaborating with Community,” The Reference Librarian 50, no. 4 (October 5, 2009): 371–96, https://doi.org/10.1080/02763870903267952.
[8] ALA Council, “Library Bill of Rights,” American Library Association, June 30, 2006, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill.
[9] Katie Forster, “Revealed: How Dangerous Fake Health News Conquered Facebook,” The Independent, January 7, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/fake-news-health-facebook-cruel-damaging-social-media-mike-adams-natural-health-ranger-conspiracy-a7498201.html.
[10] Morrone and Friedman, “Radical Reference.”
[11] Sendaula, “Libraries Are Not Neutral Spaces.”
[12] Catherine Saint Louis, “Free Lunch at the Library,” The New York Times, July 30, 2017, sec. Well, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/30/well/family/free-lunch-at-the-library.html.
[13] Members of Radical Reference Montreal, “Radical Reference: Answers for Those Who Question Authority.,” Feliciter 59, no. 2 (12-13): Apr 2013.
[14] Eamon Tewell, “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy,” Communications in Information Literacy 9, no. 1 (January 2015): 24–43.
[15] James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 2 (March 2006): 192–99.
[16] Sardar M. Anwaruddin, “Why Critical Literacy Should Turn to ‘the Affective Turn’: Making a Case for Critical Affective Literacy,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 37, no. 3 (May 3, 2016): 381–96, https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2015.1042429.
[17] Tewell, “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy.”
[18] “False Equivalence – Logical Fallacies,” Skeptical Raptor, accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/logical-fallacies/false-equivalence-logical-fallacies/.