Neither App nor Algorithm

Computers, Intellectual Freedom Issues, News Literacy

By: Frederic Murray

The verification of fake news has been monetized. An emergent business capitalizing on the inherent disarray of the internet now exists to tell us whether we have been lied to or not. What does this mean? Has our media landscape become such a mirrored fun house that we can’t distinguish the truth anymore? Perhaps the truth was always a bit much to expect.

Secret Codes
Photo credit: Secret codes. Photo. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.

Storyful is a seven-year-old company that vets video news content. According to its website, it’s in the business of “validating social content and providing critical insights” to its clients and partners.

It’s a legitimate business, and business is booming.

One of the ways that libraries and librarians help nourish the idea of intellectual freedom is by maintaining integrity in both our collections and our interactions with patrons. That integrity, in part, devolves from a clear-eyed perspective of classifying content in an appropriate fashion. When Holocaust denial books began littering our historical collections, a distinct classification for these works was created. In 1995 the Library of Congress created a separate decimal subdivision of Holocaust denial literature (D804.35), and in 2003 the Dewey Decimal Classification added its own unique call number (940.531818). In this way, both academic and public libraries were able to negotiate some thorny, very important, philosophical questions regarding our collections and our adherence to the Library Bill of Rights:

“Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval” (ALA 1996).

If someone wanted to find a book in this area, we would help them, no questions asked. Problem solved, sort of, at least for a little while.

Unfortunately, the world is not the library, no matter the strength of Borges’ imagination, and our role as educators and experts in information have grown more complex and demanding. A library without access to digital information is not a library. There is no managing the World Wide Web, and so the role of critically evaluating information, and teaching this skill set, has become an important pedagogical space for libraries.

The tech giants, initially slow to move on this problem, have fully embraced their role in combating fake news. In the upcoming French elections, slated for April 23, both Facebook and Google are taking an activist stance. One is employing media specialists and journalism students to respond to user complaints, essentially crowd-sourcing the problem. The other is relying on the power of its purse to build collaborations like First Draft News and CrossCheck, anchored by the Google News Lab.

No doubt there will be a plethora of evolving technical solutions. After all, combating fake news is an emergent and proven successful business model. And that’s part of the problem. Instead of using their vast resources to promote the central tenets of media literacy or information literacy, tech companies will always chose to respond to consumer demand: the demand being a quick fix.

I’m not comfortable telling students to click on a link; there needs to be more when it comes to the critical evaluation of information.

Professors Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann recently made a succinct argument about the dangers of outsourcing critical thinking to computers. We stand to lose even more if we fail to recognize that the highly engineered environments that make up the World Wide Web, especially the news/media sphere, are always going to be in flux, and there are no shortcuts to real knowledge.

Librarians are educators. It is a role we need to continue to embrace fully in order to leverage our collections, and our expertise, to serve the public good in the current climate. The role of libraries in preserving intellectual freedom, as well as the integrity of our collections and interactions we have with patrons, is based on critical thinking and clear-eyed reasoning, not the convenience of a hyperlink.


Frederic MurrayFrederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at


  • In a very short time the meaning of “Fake News” has been co-opted from meaning deliberate lies being reported as legitimate news ( The Atlantic had a very good article recently about the Macedonian teens hustling for ad-revenue) to “Fake News” being highly biased criticism and therefore untruthful. This issue deserves our scrutiny. I’d never heard of, it’s a good article, thanks for sharing.

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