Probably the most widely watched arena in information right now is what to do about the rise of disinformation through what is commonly referred to as “fake news.” Although fake news is commonly talked about, it can be hard to define exactly what it is. Wikipedia does a decent job when it describes it as a source that “deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation — using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect. Unlike news satire, fake news websites seek to mislead, rather than entertain, readers for financial, political, or other gain.“
Although fake news has always existed, it has recently been thrust into the limelight for its role in the contemporary political conversation as it plays out on social media. This in turn has led for some to call for a crackdown on purveyors of fake news. In relatively short order, Google has banned hundreds of sites that it says publishes fake news. Facebook has edited its trending feature to try to bury fake news. The EU has expanded its anti-fake news task force. Fake news is an issue of growing concern, and it is already having real world consequences.
That being said, the initial impulse to crack down on fake news is to get rid of those who write and publish it. After all, if there is no one out there to disseminate fake news, then it won’t be a problem any longer. One of the problems with using a censorship as a tool, however, is that there’s no clear idea of where to stop. There may be some stories that are out-and-out falsehoods, but others may just be a different set of facts interpreted through an extremely partisan lens. Another issue is that when employing censorship “only to get rid of the worst,” there has to be an ongoing trust in the censoring body that they would only be removing things they were supposed to. With the trust in public institutions declining all the time, it is doubtful any group of people could come to a consensus as to what should truly be censored.
The third section of the Library Bill of Rights states, “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” And it is easier to do that when someone is trying to ban a classic text or a popular YA novel. It can be much harder to stand up for this principle when it applies to speech and publications that many perceive to have a negative influence on society. Censorship, however, is almost never the solution.
As information advocates, librarians are in a fantastic position to continue the process of educating our communities on how to evaluate information for themselves. If one fake news site gets squashed, two more heads will grow in its place. But if a person learns to inculcate themselves from the effects of disinformation, that is a skill they can use no matter how the message presents itself in the future.
The easy solution to fake news is just to get rid of the fake news. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is how do we educate our communities to be less susceptible to disinformation in the first place? That is where the work for libraries in this area lives.
John “Mack” Freeman is the marketing and programming coordinator for the West Georgia Regional Library. He is a past recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Conable Scholarship, and he was a 2015 ALA Emerging Leader. He currently co-chairs the GLBTRT’s Stonewall Book Award Committee and is the 2nd vice president/membership chair of the Georgia Library Association. He is interested in privacy, self-censorship, new frontiers of IF, and services to under-served communities. You can find out more about him at www.johnmackfreeman.com. When not in library world, he enjoys walking Micah, the laziest blueheeler in the world, going on adventures with his husband Dale, and cooking Italian food from unintentionally snobby mid-century cookbooks. Find him on Twitter @johnmackfreeman.