Information Literacy Is Dead: The Role of Libraries in a Post-Truth World

By Johnson, Ben | Computers in Libraries, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Information Literacy Is Dead: The Role of Libraries in a Post-Truth World


Johnson, Ben, Computers in Libraries


Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year for 2016 was "post-truth," a term it defines as any circumstance "in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." So maybe truth didn't die in 2016; it just took a backseat.

It was certainly a year of memorable news headlines. Do you remember "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump"? And who could forget "Florida Man Dies in Meth-Lab Explosion After Lighting Farts on Fire"? Of course, neither of these things happened. These "news" stories were just stories--the products of clickbait factories, which are churning out and disseminating false information. The point of the deception was to make money. Any influence on public opinion was, for the most part, a by product of the fake news sausage-making.

The fake news stories of 2016 were exceedingly easy to disprove, and fact-checkers were quick to point out their inaccuracies--but none of that mattered. According to an analysis by BuzzFeed, fake news about U.S. politics accounted for 10.6 million of the 21.5 million total shares on Facebook during the period of study. The headlines were so sensational and so emotionally appealing that people just had to share them. And it looked legit enough--since all of it comes from sites that are made to look exactly the same as establishment media sites. In the end, American adults were fooled by these fake news headlines 75% of the time.

The heated political and social discourse of 2016 was fueled by appeals to emotion and personal belief--objective facts were so ineffective in swaying public opinion that they were barely relevant to the conversation. Sensational fake news stories often outperformed real news, and fact-checkers were dismissed by fake news consumers on both sides of the political spectrum who were suspicious of established media and of any facts that conflicted with their beliefs. Their efforts to disprove stories only gave those stories more airtime, lending to their truthiness--that intuitive "seems true enough" gut feeling that is often all the proof we need.

All of this puts libraries in an awkward spot.

The Core Values of Librarianship, as expressed by the American Library Association (ALA), reads similarly to a 2016 casualty list: privacy, diversity, social responsibility, etc. Libraries were established under the assumption that information is a tool of social good. During World War II, with the future of democracy in question, Franklin D. Roosevelt described libraries as the "great symbols of the freedom ... essential to the functioning of a democratic society." But if information is a cornerstone of democracy, what happens when that cornerstone is built with lies? If information can be so effectively weaponized, is it still a tool of social good?

Championing a Dead Assumption

If facts are now irrelevant to our political and social discourse, where does that leave libraries? Libraries, which offer curated and authoritative information, are champions of a dead assumption. If facts and information are not to be trusted, libraries are surely untrustworthy institutions. Indeed, the very value of intelligence has been called into question in the wake of the 2016 election, as then President-elect Donald Trump shunned intelligence briefings and questioned the work of the intelligence community (a group of information professionals who exist to gather and verify facts to inform decisions). Indeed, Trump has questioned whether facts are even a thing and whether anything is knowable at all, making statements such as, "Nobody knows exactly what's going on with computers." This is a shocking departure from past presidents who sought, above all else, to project a sense of competent understanding and a superior command of the facts. When the leader of the free world does not care about facts, and when he questions whether it is even possible to know anything as a fact, the rest of us are given implicit permission to do the same. …

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