Are English libraries serious about fighting ‘fake news’?

The upcoming general election is a big one for English libraries, as well as the nation at large.

It’s a serious test of Libraries Deliver, the national campaign to advocate for public libraries which was launched by the UK library association CILIP in association with the US organisation EveryLibrary. I don’t know much about the American campaign, or how it ports over to the very different environment in which British public libraries operate; it’s definitely the sort of moment at which one wishes that the information sector benefited from the attentions of an independent and questioning press.

In the UK, Ian Anstice at Public Libraries News does a great job of chronicling changes in the sector and navigating the fractious debate about public libraries’ future. CILIP’s own Information Professional is always a useful read, but is of course an organ of the library association itself. British librarians will also be found reading the interviews and features hosted by Princh, a Danish company offering cloud printing solutions to the sector. I’ve chatted to the Princh team before, at the suggestion of trusted peers and colleagues, but it’s always felt somewhat strange that such a significant platform for sharing librarians’ ideas is really a marketing campaign by a library supplier, where the library workers offer their thoughts for free and the Danes benefit from clicks, pageviews, and trickle-down prestige which they hope will earn them some money. It’s interesting to reflect on how questions of agendas, authorities, and funding surround the flow of information and news even within the information profession itself.

All of which brings us to the ongoing question of ‘fake news’, or the bundle of phenomena and practices including misinformation, disinformation, trolling, poor information literacy, and general carelessness which get lumped under that unfortunate label.

I got to talking about ‘fake news’ briefly with CILIP’s CEO Nick Poole on Twitter last month.

Nick chipped in to a discussion which stemmed from a piece on “fugitive libraries” by Shannon Mattern, a professor at the New School. These libraries are created on an independent, ad hoc basis, often by members of marginalized communities, and Mattern exhorts official, institutional libraries to learn from them in a way that is humble and respectful:

What is the role of a library and a librarian in an intolerant and fearful society? […] The challenge […] is to celebrate and support spaces of exception while allowing them to remain separate, and refusing to colonize or fetishize the necessary work they do.

I shared Mattern’s piece enthusiastically on social media, because it spoke to a need I see for the information profession – and particularly its representatives in the world of public libraries – to adapt to changes in politics and society, particularly when it comes to the abuse of information to harm vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Public libraries, understandably keen to demonstrate relevance and attract public funding in the digital age, have explored ways to argue their case as institutions that can resist, dispel, or mitigate the impacts of ‘fake news’.

Most librarians I know are smart enough to go beyond Neil Gaiman’s infamous “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one“: as if public libraries could compete on information retrieval and search against that global juggernaut; as if there were always a “right” answer to every question, adjudicated from on high; as if the librarian’s responsibility were to answer their user as opposed to empowering users’ own independent explorations.

But we still do get librarians being presented, formally and informally, as a “truth force“, or as “information superheroes” who presumably have some privileged superpower of access to the truth.

Are public libraries’ collections supposed to be free from pernicious items of “fake news”? It seems unlikely. Does librarians’ training immunise them from fakery? Not always.

In a gloriously embarrassing moment for myself and my colleague at City University’s Library & Information School Dr. Ludi Price, we both shared an October 2019 tweet linking to a seven-year-old BBC report about a British parliamentary select committee inquiry on library closures.

The report included a clip of a library campaigner giving a slightly insipid defence of the public library as a place which offered not just books but craft activities, space for kids to do homework, and the opportunity for retired people to gather.

Neither of us had twigged that the report was seven years old and library campaigner Alan Wylie then joined the conversation to add that the BBC report didn’t capture the full breadth of evidence offered by the campaign group.

The campaigner’s testimony, as recounted in part by the BBC journalist, had been shared and critiqued by multiple information professionals and library folk on social media, both publicly and privately, without anyone clocking the date. It was a salutary lesson that even those of us who think we might know what we’re doing in the realm of information can be careless and culpable in sharing material without fully attending to its provenance.

It’s not just about being careless with the retweet button, either: you can also overthink and over-interrogate the origins of news, as I did when the Observer first announced that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag fame was being brought in to punch up the next James Bond film’s script.

As a big Fleabag fan, I was excited to read the news in April 2019, but when I looked at the Observer story it seemed rather thin. There was a lot of talk about the film’s stop-start production process, no response from the film producers or Waller-Bridge’s agent, and Daniel Craig’s agent was simply quoted as saying “I’m not the guy to talk of rumour”.

The only bit of the story that actually seemed to offer a basis for the Observer’s claim that Waller-Bridge had the job went like this:

Sources close to the film in the US said that while in the country she discussed with Craig how to improve the script of Bond 25, which the 007 actor felt needed some “polishing”, by introducing more humour and the offbeat style of writing she is best known for.

Even that doesn’t actually say that she had the job, or that there was a job going: just that she had chatted about the script with Daniel Craig.

So I figured this was probably a not-real story, Hollywood gossip, and just a smart way to get some pageviews by speculatively yoking together the Bond brand and one of Britain’s hottest writers and performers.

Except that Waller-Bridge did confirm the news on a Hollywood Reporter podcast in early May, and the Observer team had just done a good job and broken the story early.

You can get tangled up in knots when you try too hard to interrogate the news: or at least, I can – I’m sure you’re smarter and more savvy than me in this regard.

So amid all of this social media chatter, in public and private forums, about information professionals and fake news, Nick Poole of CILIP made a point to steer us away from notions of privileged access to truth and towards questions of critical literacy:

Nick’s suggestion might helpfully steer us away from “library superpowers” towards the fostering of a critical attitude to the information we create, consume, and share. CILIP itself defines “information literacy” as:

The ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to engage fully with society.

This definitely helps us to move the conversation forward. We might then ask: who adjudicates balance? In an age when we’re debating whether news programmes need to invite climate change deniers onto shows as guests to debate climate scientists and activists, does the librarian’s notion of balance differ from, or resemble, that of a journalist? By emphasising citizen empowerment and “full” engagement with society as it stands, does this definition favour the status quo?

These questions, and more, arose at a seminar for Library & Information Students at City University’s After Hours series last year, when we encouraged trainee information professionals to interrogate their relationship to ‘fake news’.

It was an example of the university environment at its best: it offered us a space to step back, reflect, and draw on a range of disciplines to debate the questions which we don’t always have time, space, or freedom to reflect on in our day-to-day roles.

We asked what librarians might learn about ‘fake news’ from therapy, or literature, or a deliberately fraudulent, thought-provoking museum exhibit.

We explored what happens when the line between truth and lies dissolves, and reflected on what it would mean if people were willing to overlook political lies because they felt the democratic system was rigged or broken.

These were valuable questions, but as we discussed them, I kept flashing back to a rural Australian public library I had visited, where I’d seen some pretty vitriolic hard-right propaganda lying in the tray to be collected from the public printer.

I tried to imagine what it would be like for the sole librarian in a remote Aussie town to take on the challenge of ‘fake news’. To police what was being read or printed from the public computers, to ensure that people who would be harmed by that propaganda would still feel safe in her library, to help build critical literacy in that community and to set some expectations about appropriate political discourse – to do all of these things, on a meagre council salary, in a small town, far from our students’ intense intellectual discussions about the nature of fake news.

It was a tough call for that remote Aussie librarian, and I think it’ll be a tough call for public librarians in England too. In the midst of a fraught election campaign, clouded by the polarisations of Brexit and allegations of meddling and fraud, how, for example, should a librarian respond to the doctored Conservative video featuring Labour’s Keir Starmer, which re-edited an interview to make him appear stumped? Was it a mistake, as some Conservative politicians claimed, or a satire, or something more malicious? How should public librarians lead that conversation with their users, many of whom will also be voters? Being the impartial champions of critical literacy, let alone a “Truth Force”, becomes incredibly difficult in such partisan times, especially given that libraries are themselves publicly funded bodies.

Maybe one way forward is for public librarians to get involved in news at another, deeper level: not just as supporters of critical literacy, helping people to interrogate the information they encounter, but as active participants in the news ecosystem.

The innovation organisation Nesta is currently calling for applicants to its Future News Fund in England. This fund will provide money and support to proposals for new ways to support public interest news; that is to say, news coverage relating to public life and democracy – all the “facts and information that help hold the powerful and elected to account and allow communities to campaign for the issues that matter to them.”

The Nesta team note that disadvantaged communities “that tend to have older populations, higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of education, are particularly affected by a decline in journalistic activity” – precisely the parts of the country which most benefit from public libraries, where the library branch may be the one remaining outpost of cultural life and learning physically present in the community.

Nesta encourage proposals to “reimagine the engagement of people and communities in the generation and dissemination of public interest news”, including new roles  for users, people, and communities.

Public libraries are proud of the relatively high degree of community trust which they enjoy. They recognise the need to play a role in the turbulent information ecoystem of today’s digital world, even if they haven’t fully defined or enacted that role yet.

Nesta’s fund represents an offer and an opportunity for progressive and ambitious public library services in England to address the challenges of the 21st century news ecosystem at a deeply local level: not by pretending a privileged access to truth or some kind of “informational superpower”, not by picking dangerous political fights over misinformation and propaganda, but by being involved from the outset in attempts to construct a whole new way of producing, sharing, and consuming news and information, premised on grounding next generation news in the community it seeks to serve.

As an example, Nesta’s team suggest proposals for “new platforms where journalists, citizens and communities can co-create their local news, jointly set an agenda and thereby increase readership and trust”. If that doesn’t sound like something to which the 21st century public library can and should play host, I don’t know what does.

Applications for Nesta’s Future News Fund close on 8th December 2019. Librarians, information professionals, and their allies who are serious about fighting ‘fake news’ should take this opportunity to trial their ideas in England – so get your skates on.

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