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Breaking The Misinformation Cycle

By Lauren Bryant, Greg Bem, and Meredith Forney

“Misinformation.” A word that’s popping up all over the place, often matched with tones of disdain and frustration. Misinformation, defined by Merriam-Webster as “incorrect or misleading information,” can be found from newspaper articles to social media posts, but what does it say about our culture of information sharing? As librarians, we are concerned with both the created information as well as how it is engaged with and then distributed.

Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems like each day there is new information we need to digest in order to keep us safe as guidance evolves. However, there are many sources out there claiming to be experts on this important topic, that instead produce false or misleading media. With sharing buttons at the ready, many information seekers are able to share works they stumble upon (or posts about the works) with a single click. Is reading and analyzing information required? Of course not. Part of this behavior is due to the nature of information: something exciting creates a sense of urgency, and often the urgency to share is at odds with reliability. Many of us are terrified and upset. There is an intense need to understand what is going on and then figure out how to fix it. Even the most reliable of sources are doubling back and releasing seemingly (or actually) contradictory information as health care experts make discoveries. The production, dissemination, and consumption of information happens in a cycle. The “first wave” of that cycle arrives before fact checkers, be they you, your neighbor, or organizations like Snopes and a href=""">">Politifact, have a chance to check and crosscheck the details. As such, overeager information sharers, even if they have the best of intentions, often find themselves spreading misinformation that has the guise of truth.

One contributor to the spread and source of misinformation is social media, an increasingly-used space where we all go for ideas and information, which historically lacks system-wide tools for evaluation and review, and is ever available to inundate and overwhelm the user. Some social media platforms are making efforts, causing us to pause and consider the articles we’re encountering: Twitter detects whether the article has been viewed and asks the user if they would like to read the article before retweeting, adding a layer of accountability each time a user shares an article. But even this measure is easily ignored, and most social media platforms do not have such features.

Librarians are consistently encountering the relationships students and educators have with information in this fast-paced reality. With so many sources to sift through, many do not feel they have the time or skills to suss out which articles or posts are reliable. We encounter clickbait, where the title of an article seems engaging, impactful, and shareable, but the content of the article ends up being, at best, fluff. We also see media where small slivers of information are pulled from articles and given out of context. We encounter anonymous articles on professionally-designed blogs, articles lacking context from local news channels, and even articles that are a few sentences, having been published before full reports are ready. A professional-looking blog can have nicely formatted articles that are intended to look like news reports and even librarians have to use our evaluation checklist to discover that many of these are intended to push a political agenda or endorse an underlying service or product.

Publications matched with witticisms and trendy language carry and build the messaging across platforms, often reinforced algorithmically through clicks, and psychologically through likes.

Especially when the content is upsetting and threatening, this process can be exhausting.

Feeling a responsibility to be informed, students and educators alike are overwhelmed and burnt out through information overload and the drive to connect to everything and nothing at all. Information and misinformation, in the end, compounds and can be very defeating.

The effects of overload not only overwhelm but reduce our critical thinking and distorts our awareness. It can even leave our biases unchecked and, over time, reinforce belief and fears, and prevent us from deeper connections to science, data, and truth. Our stances are reinforced. We are driven to lean into what we know, what feels comfortable, and easily known. And while on the surface they may feel normal and easy, debates and conversations become more challenging as we lose that ability to have discourse, to connect, to learn, and be educated, both alone and with others.

Do not despair! You are not alone and there is help available. The same tips, tools, and strategies librarians have always promoted to support research in the academy and everyday life are just as relevant in today’s information and media landscape. We believe that slowing down and asking questions about information can help disrupt the spread of misinformation by acknowledging there is a cycle to information and acknowledging we all have a role to play in that cycle. These strategies are practical in nature, and contribute to an invaluable, universal skillset we librarians proudly praise: information literacy.

When it comes to misinformation, first consider the source. Beyond the organization’s name, what is the role of the author and their platform in the context of the information that’s being published? Second, how is the publication being fiscally supported? Are there ads within the work? Is the material being supported and promoted to align with another agenda? Third, have the statements in the article been aligned with other articles, research publications, or events that support the statements, and are the citations for those external sources available? Fourth, when it comes to the graphs and other visual representations of information, what data is included and what’s left out?

Limiting your media intake or depending only on the most reliable publications is one great way to avoid burnout, the exhausting feeling of being bombarded with alarming information that in many cases is not accurate or reliable. Many of our librarian colleagues are expressing surprise at the sheer volume of peer-reviewed studies that are being released on medical and health sciences related topics within the last few years of the pandemic. It normally takes one to five years for a peer-reviewed publication to be researched and released, but research is being done and released at an impressive rate during this time. Some of the best sources for health sciences articles that are peer reviewed include PubMed, run by the National Library of Medicine; Google Scholar; and, depending on your library’s holdings, you may have the health sciences focused database, CINAHL.

The brutal truth is that in most situations, our emotional reaction to information, and the sense of urgency to share the information, will take over before each of us can stop to question. And in such a tumultuous time, taking extra care to seek out only the most reliable sources of information can contribute to our emotional well-being. That is why we firmly believe that this work is not for the individual, but for the community. Academic and school librarianship is often concerned with individual information needs, but misinformation reflects a systemic nature and communal imperative. Discuss the information you find, your questions about it, or your feelings about the onslaught of news with your friends and colleagues. They might be feeling the same way, and may have insight or experience that you have not yet considered. Remember, misinformation and the burnout that it causes is a community issue, so talk about it with your community.

So our final strategy: when in doubt, or even when you just have a few moments, bring it to your local librarian, and let’s talk about it. We obsess over this kind of stuff, and we work alongside wonderful projects like UW’s Center for an Informed Public (creators of Misinformation Day!) and the News Literacy Project to bring resources and trainings to our communities. Additionally, we strive to find the best sources of information available to educate and evolve our reading, analyzing, and sharing. We are also of the community, and want to promote our communities’ safety.

The sheer volume of reliable and unreliable information we encounter everyday can make us feel as though we will never be able to understand our current world. We empathize with this feeling and even those among us with excellent research skills feel uncertain and confused at times. However, by remembering to slow down, wait for the facts, ask a few practical questions, and engage in thoughtful, supportive discussion with your friends, colleagues, and librarians, you too can tackle misinformation and information overload.

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