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Critical thinking in the age of fake news

Last month, FM president, Dustin Swanger, wrote of the disturbing trend of alt-news in his article, “Fake News, Social Media and the Downfall of the U.S.”

It was a powerful statement that spoke to the confusion and distrust we have seen in this country in the months prior to and subsequent of the recent presidential election. It called for vigilance, compassion and spoke passionately to the importance of education in our own lives and the life of our communities as a way to combat fear and distrust.

Because of his article and many others like it, I jumped at the chance to enter the conversation and share what I believe to be valuable advice for us all.

I want to share what I know about information, what I believe can and should be done about opening the lines of communication and what we all can and must do to better inform ourselves in these uncertain times.

I’ll start by referring to one of the articles that most caught my eye, as it encapsulated the most worrying aspect of our current situation in a clear and articulate manner. “Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth” by Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, is a Nov. 21, 2016 article in Education Week goo.gl/UmrqR3.

This article talks about studies at both Northwestern and Stanford universities that exposed how a significant number of students, middle school through college, were unable to determine if information they searched for was valid (“true”) or not.

The article then goes on to describe the strategies used by expert searchers (they call them “professional fact-checkers” but I’ll bet they were librarians!) to locate information that could be verified, relied-upon and most importantly, used in helping individuals make their own decisions and determinations.

When I read the strategies, I was struck how they went to the very core of what we are teaching our students at FM. The library has long had identified learning outcomes — strategies we set out to teach our students that will help them think critically and to become educated and informed citizens. One of these outcomes states: “At FM information literate students will be able to … evaluate information.”

We instruct these students on the process of not just taking information at face value, but helping them to dig a bit deeper, to look past the headline to see if what they are reading or viewing or hearing is, in fact, “good” information.

Factors we instruct them to take into consideration when considering information include: Is it current? Is it relevant? Is the source an authority on the topic? Is it accurate? And finally, for what purpose was the piece created? Addressing all these aspects of the article will help our students and anyone who wants to go beyond the “C.R.A.A.P.” to get to the substance of what is being offered.

Life is full of nuance, the written and spoken word is certainly not any different. As such, it is vital to remember that as much as we would wish, truth will likely not be found in the first few results at the top of the search page (i.e. the low-hanging fruit).

It takes work and it takes an investment of time and energy to look a bit deeper. It is imperative that we move beyond the shallow waters that are so easily accessed and take the dive into the deep end. I can promise you it’s worth it. Just ask any librarian.

Mary Donohue is professor and library director at FMCC.

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