I rarely get angry. Or, maybe that’s not true. I’m sure I get angry, but I rarely remember it. Maybe that’s better. Whatever the case, there is a recent encounter on social media that I won’t soon forget.
I was angry. It was a simple share from one of my friends on Facebook, except it wasn’t from one of my friends—it was inexplicably from several at almost the same time, the same hour, the same day. Maybe you saw it. It simply stated that COVID-19 stood for Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease and it was the 19th such virus to come out of China.
Only that wasn’t it. The meme also framed this definition by stating that all journalists are morons for not knowing this, and not telling the world the true meaning of the acronym—which, for the record, is coronavirus disease, first discovered in 2019. That’s it.
In case these things also make you angry, there are many resources for fact-checking in today’s world of ever-increasing, faster and faster-spreading misinformation.
Guarding Against Misinformation
One tool I like is called NewsGuard. After becoming the first public library in Illinois to partner with NewsGuard, I was asked to join the Board of Advisors for News Literacy Programs. NewsGuard is just one of many resources for stopping the dissemination of misinformation, but with its “nutrition label” reviews of credibility for more than 4,000 journalistic sources, it is a robust starting point for anyone looking to discern between what’s fake and what’s real.
Unlike a simple fact-checker, NewsGuard rates the reliability of sources, not individual claims or articles. And unlike an algorithm, NewsGuard’s ratings and reviews are produced by humans—trained journalists—using a transparent, apolitical process.
As for its place in libraries, we’ve been in the business of providing information since the beginning. Making NewsGuard’s internet browser extension available to our patrons continues that mission. Providing the ability to see a website’s journalistic veracity so patrons can determine whether they want to proceed doesn’t limit anyone’s options. Instead, they may choose to proceed at their own risk. This information is merely provided by the library and made available through NewsGuard. It’s a step in the right direction.
More generally, according to a June 5, 2020 article in The Washington Post by Geoffrey A. Fowler, there are several easy steps that can assist in not falling victim to the spread of fake news. Personally, I like the idea of finding and evaluating the originating source. This can take some doing, if, as in my situation, the post was shared by multiple friends. But it often doesn’t take more than a few clicks.
According to Fowler, “cute things”—including golden retriever puppies and even Beyoncé— are a frequent tool of the internet troll, often used as the foreground to false text. This, I think we can universally agree, is at least slightly unsettling.
No One is Immune
The point is, it’s easy to be fooled—and it may not always seem harmful. I remember sharing a quote from actor Alan Rickman, shortly after his passing, that was never actually said by Alan Rickman. Someone called me out for it, and I was better for the experience. More recently, I remember reading that Vin Diesel had passed away and thinking how much I had been looking forward to the forty-seventh Fast & Furious sequel but, alas. That was also not true, turns out.
I don’t know why fake celebrity deaths or fake celebrity quotes are fun for people to manufacture. But if you ask me, messing with Beyoncé and puppies is harmful in its own way—and, more seriously, spreading misinformation regarding people’s health and well-being can be devastating.
And maybe, just maybe, all journalists aren’t morons. PM
Joel D. Shoemaker, MLIS, is director of the Illinois Prairie District Public Library and serves on NewsGuard’s Board of News Literacy Advisors. Learn more at newsguardtech.com.