The Internet Librarian programme conference looked very appealing with a key theme being the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and how it affects libraries and librarians. I also liked the diversity within the programme which was reflected in conference delegates attending from different settings academic, school, government, corporate. I was a day delegate, and was not disappointed by the excellent and thought-provoking address given by David White, Head of Digital Learning at University for the Arts, London and the subsequent presentations which grappled with the issue of ‘fighting the fake and finding the facts’.
Keynote: David White Expertise in an era of easy answers
He started off by making some comments about common search expectations:
“I knew the internet wouldn’t give me the wrong answer”
And suggested a new strapline for Google and social media:
“think less – find more” (google)
“think less – get told more” (social media)
White argued that although Google can give ‘good enough’ answers, the top search results are usually marketing info or propaganda. Many people still assume that the top search hits are a set of personally curated results tailored specifically to their search terms rather than the product of computer-generated programmes (search bots) that trawl the internet. An interesting example of this was during the pro-Trump election campaign. 20% of the tweets from this campaign were from computer-generated and these ones retweeted more than ones created by humans! This type of falsified information is all pervasive because it is propagated across different social media platforms and information sources which the information a new credibility, as the same information is coming from many different newsfeeds/sources.
White explained how the production of information has shifted away from institutions (e.g media, government, libraries) to the individual. He provided an excellent quote which illustrates how everything around the individual and what is deemed to be the truth is so because of a feeling that is true.
“…. What I say is right and nothing anyone else says could be true. It’s not I *feel* it to be true, but that *I* feel it could be true.”
Institutions are hierarchical structures that have procedures for producing/publishing information, yet the web has created a disintermediation of institutions’. Wikipedia and Trump tweeting directly to his 44 million followers were examples given of how social media has enabled him to circumvent two powerful institutions (media and government) before his official message was released. He argued that everything is pervaded by a fight between networks and hierarchies; this is where libraries are struggling. Libraries are hierarchies on various levels, yet the world we live in is very much a networked one.
He described how the changing format of information from oral > print > digital has required different methods for making sense of information, e.g the print paradigm was very much a physical and spatial paradigm and required a taxonomic structure to access knowledge. However, the digital and networked world no longer requires us to engage with information and knowledge through these structures. Students are more likely to see information visually and in terms of relevance and are unlikely to organise it hierarchically and browse through structures of knowledge.
So, how do librarians respond to these changes? White argued that the library needs to move towards becoming a ‘cultural signifier of expertise in seeking the truth’ and not be preoccupied in engaging with content at the expense of expertise. Librarians need to ‘draw the lines to connect scattered facts in an era of fake news’ and we should strive to become experts in navigation, evaluation and curation to best support the needs of students. White summed up by saying that librarians should be experts in making connections between Information, ideas and people. This is the expertise that we can offer in the era of easy answers and this expertise needs to be made as visible as possible.
By Ellie Fowkes