Published back in February, Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto, Building Global Community, may not have made it to the top of your reading pile. Perhaps, like me, you initially categorized it as a marketing ploy, the action of a CEO trying to fend off criticism of his company. Many have faulted Facebook for its failure to ensure an informed and civil discourse for its users during a hotly contested political cycle, domestically and abroad.
In his posting to Facebook, Zuckerberg focused on the idea that the network represents more than a piece of technological infrastructure. Rather, it is a key piece of social infrastructure, useful in connecting those with varying interests and concerns (children, medical conditions, cultural heritage, etc.). Zuckerberg outlines the requirements for creating and fostering community in an online environment. To serve Facebook’s nearly two billion monthly users successfully, the community must be inclusive, supportive, safe, civically engaged, and informed.
In Zuckerberg’s eyes, Facebook’s role as a significant information and communication technology (ICT) is still evolving, and his manifesto speaks of the ways in which Facebook must improve if it is to justify its place in modern society. Facebook is a business that must remain commercially viable, but the business wields an outsize social influence that has the potential of bringing down governments and leaving chaos in its wake. The social-networking platform has responsibilities to shoulder, and Zuckerberg seeks to show that he is not unaware of that.
The 32-year-old Facebook founder expresses big dreams — “…spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty and accelerating science.” With regard to that last ambition, the philanthropic Chan Zuckerberg Initiative acquired Meta, with the stated intent of making the “AI-powered research search engine…free to all in a few months after enhancing the product.” A need to broadly share substantive information in pursuing prosperity and peace is thereby recognized.
Zuckerberg’s manifesto references the problem of “fake news,” the inaccurate information that individual (and corporate) entities may disseminate via Facebook, specifically noting a fear of the effects felt from sensationalism and polarization — two forces that counteract positive intentions in building community. Early in March, Facebook began to tag news stories as “disputed,” but unless Facebook’s body of algorithms as well as some percentage of individual users question a published item as dubious, material goes unchallenged. And as Ben Thompson of Stratechery has noted, there are dangers in relying upon this decade’s preeminent social networking platform to determine what is and is not reliable information.
Of course, others besides Zuckerberg have voiced their concerns regarding the circulation of questionable content. After all, it’s not just Facebook that may contribute to the muddying of the waters. This year at SXSW, Amazon was faulted for building a marketing campaign for its television series The Man in the High Castle that appeared to represent an authentic news source. Fake news gets complicated, ranging as it does along a spectrum of satirical sites, sensational click-bait headlines, and those news sites that present fully fabricated stories. Given a constant streaming of content across today’s digital platform environments, how can society know whether a source is reliable? Knowing how to sort through content — whether accurate, inaccurate, sensational, or polarizing — is important. Knowing what information may be trusted is imperative.
So in the context of this blog, why should a Scholarly Kitchen Chef give time and space to “fake news”?
Because Zuckerberg (perhaps without knowing it) has hit upon a critical concern touching this sector. Information literacy is not just a set of skills that are “nice to have”; such skills are truly a necessity of modern life. And in our society, one of the early indicators of those skills in middle and high school students is their ability to appropriately evaluate output from the mainstream news media. If students can’t demonstrate such basic proficiency, they won’t be able to make use of the sophisticated digital information environments available to them in higher education and formal research settings.
The recently released ACRL Environmental Scan 2017 gives information literacy — with specific reference to “fake news” — prominent positioning in its pages, the topic falling second only to funding and enrollment trends in higher education. Given the earnest discussions associated with the withdrawal of the original ACRL information literacy competency standards in favor of the more complex Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, it is clear that library professionals view the aid they provide to students as a professional imperative. They are called upon to do more than educate students as to available tools and discipline-specific information resources.
Information literacy entails an ongoing awareness, in the words of the ACRL scan, “of the effect of cognitive biases, personal beliefs and values on one’s approach to information evaluation” (see page 12). The question is whether faculty and administrators within the institution (as well as in broader society) see instruction in this realm as properly belonging to the information profession. Is information literacy really something that can be imparted to students in the space of a single instructional session at the beginning of a semester?
Among academics and librarians, there is a recognition that information literacy represents the long-term acquisition of understanding; as Philadelphia University puts it to their students, it’s “not just one class that you take and then you are done with.”
At the moment, the information profession is making a more-than-creditable attempt at combating fake news, the filtering of which requires that the reader possess a minimal set of information literacy skills. The Programming Librarian (a site belonging to ALA Public Programs Office) posts a useful resource list for crafting instruction in identifying “fake news.” Among other materials found there, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library (in Illinois) links to a number of resources aimed at educating and reminding users of the C.R.A.A.P. criteria (that is, currency, relevancy, accuracy, authority, and purpose), while the University of Michigan will offer a one-credit course in the fall entitled “Fake News, Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction.”
Among academics and librarians, there is a recognition that information literacy represents the long-term acquisition of understanding; as Philadelphia University puts it to their students, it’s “not just one class that you take and then you are done with.” We all have to learn and relearn best practices for engaging with information. It seems more challenging now, given the speed with which we are delivered and encounter new content, but it is, at its core, a critical thinking process.
And what shapes that thinking process? As Zuckerberg noted, it’s our social network. We tend to trust information that flows to us from sharing done by our family, colleagues, and friends. And as digital sociologist Mark Carrigan noted recently, the shaping that is accomplished through the social channels available to students and experts alike can facilitate the process of more robust (and potentially clearer) thinking. In a separate blog essay, he notes, “Social media didn’t create the ambition to rethink scholarly communication, it gave us the tools to do it effectively.”
Which brings me back to Mark Zuckerberg’s Building Global Community. The man is smart enough to recognize that “social media is a short form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times,” and that as such, social media “discourages nuance.” The skills associated with information literacy counter that tendency. They foster nuanced thinking. In discussing his concerns for an informed community, Zuckerberg writes, “…our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives…A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives…”
Most recently, ACRL released a white paper, Global Perspectives on Information Literacy: Fostering a Dialogue for International Understanding. This white paper suggests (as did the ACRL Environmental Scan) that perhaps it is not the responsibility solely of the library profession to impart information literacy, but the responsibility of the larger community as well. To foster Zuckerberg’s global community, everyone in the community must have absorbed the relevant practices. The need to impart information literacy skills is truly a global one, even if not all approaches will equally suit all populations.
Publishers have for years supplied training materials to libraries as a means of fostering usage of specific information tools and services. But in an age in which information literacy is about more than disciplinary resources and strategies for their use, publishers might consider whether and how they might better support the kind of nuanced thinking with which the CEO of Facebook is himself just beginning to wrestle. It can’t be left to the algorithms.