In light of the emergence of fake news as one of the key stories following the 2016 presidential election, it’s worth (re-)considering the importance of evaluating information to any research process—whether that process involves writing a paper or gathering information about a candidate for office.
Although developing evaluation skills has always been integral to any research process, it’s arguably even more urgently needed now. That’s because libraries are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information, and it’s now possible to simply do a quick search on the web, find something that appears to relate to the topic at hand, and either forward to someone else, or incorporate it into a paper or other piece of research.
As has been widely reported, a great deal of the fake news now circulates on social media networks. In this New York Times op-ed written by Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of library and information science at the University of North Carolina, the author takes Facebook to task for becoming a platform for misinformation campaigns (the pope endorses Donald Trump! An FBI agent who leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails found dead!).
Part of the problem, Tufekci argues, is Facebook’s algorithmic system, which promotes updates based on whether users find them “comforting.” But research isn’t supposed to be comforting; neither, correspondingly, is the moral and ethical work of citizenship. And helping students learn the moral and ethical work of citizenship is—or should be—in large part why we teach research skills on a college campus.
There have been signs that Facebook is taking steps to limit the fake news stories that are shared on its servers, but researchers—that is, those doing a paper or those simply gathering information to make an informed choice on an election—need to ask themselves a set of questions about every source they’re using, no matter how much the source may support one’s thesis or existing worldview, and no matter how much that source has been useful in the past.
First, who is responsible for the piece? A name isn’t enough; one needs to ask about the author’s credentials or authority to have written something on a particular topic. If it’s a news story, does it come from a reputable service—one that checks its facts, verifies its sources and provides multiple perspectives? Some of the fake Facebook posts came from the “Denver Guardian,” which sounds great until one realizes that no such news source exists. (Go ahead, Google it.)
Second, when was the piece written? In this election season, I saw articles forwarded and shared on social media that had been created months and even years earlier, making it seem as though they had just appeared. But facts and situations can change quickly, and in many research or fact-finding situations, it’s important to have current information, or at least to be aware of when an article appeared so that its date of creation can factor into one’s judgment about it.
Why was the piece written? To report the news, or to advance knowledge in a particular field? To get someone elected to an office? To spread fear, or to propagandize an issue? To make money? This question is often entangled with who wrote the story, but it’s equally important. (To think about the ways in which who wrote a piece can be bound up with why he or she wrote it, I suggest checking out this self-exculpatory New York Times op-ed written by someone who works for WikiLeaks.)
How and where did the author(s) get their information? In scholarly writing, this is precisely why citations must be provided—so that authors cannot simply assert something without some kind of backup. We need to be able to believe what authors are saying; it’s equally important to be able to verify their sources.
I’ve been trying to share the above questions with the first-year seminars with whom I’ve worked this past semester. We’ve looked at sources we found on the web and tried to think about evaluating them based on the above questions, rather than applying such abstract, blanket maxims such as “sites that come from a .edu or .org address are okay.” That’s not necessarily true; it’s always necessary to look closer at each article or book.
One of the first-year seminars I worked with was entitled “Performing Citizenship.” It was striking to me that the course focus and our work with evaluating sources were in particular alignment—and, similarly, that the task of critically evaluating research information and that of truly becoming an informed, participating citizen are one and the same. Whenever we undertake or assign research—and learn or teach the requisite skills to perform this research—we would do well to keep the responsibilities and imperatives of citizenship in full view.
— Fred Folmer