What We Miss About Misinformation: Q&A with Dr. Nicole Cooke

LJ caught up with Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker endowed chair and associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science, University of South Carolina, to ask what librarians need to know about how misinformation and disinformation work in the modern era and how they can be combated effectively.

Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, Augusta Baker endowed chair and associate professor at the School of Library and Information Science, University of South Carolina, is the author of Fake News and Alternative Facts: Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Era and “Critical Literacy as an Approach to Combating Cultural Misinformation/Disinformation Online” in Information Literacy and Libraries in the Age of Fake News, among many other publications. Cooke also contributed to the American Library Association’s free digital guide and webinar series on adult media literacy. LJ caught up with her to ask what librarians need to know about how misinformation and disinformation work in the modern era and how they can be combated effectively.

LJ : We know that fact checking approaches to combating misinformation can backfire, causing people to dig in to their erroneous beliefs. Why is that?

Nicole Cooke: It’s the emotional dimension of information behavior: how people use, seek, or avoid information. We can give them tips, tricks, and strategies, such as “have you seen it in three different places?” but at the end of the day people’s emotional reactions, filter bubbles, and echo chambers tend to supersede what they know they should be doing. We tend to avoid the information on the negative end and gravitate to information that makes us happy, that confirms what we already know, and that doesn’t challenge us.

Some of this is about community: You are interacting with people you feel some kind of connection to, and you are invested in, and you start going down that rabbit hole, you don’t have enough outside exposure.

How can librarians combat that phenomenon?

I am not always sure that we as information professionals can do that, or should do it. We are getting into psychological issues when we crack that emotional veneer. On NPR they were talking about deeper issues and psychological states; that’s beyond what we do. The psychological dimension is bringing us into a different field. I think sometimes the most we can do is give them the necessary tools; we can’t always help if they use them or not.

How can librarians best provide those tools?

Avoid the term “fake news,” it’s a conversation stopper. As much as possible, take the emotion out of it. You can certainly have all the good programs, and then what? It’s really hard to make that connection. You have people who think “that doesn’t affect me, I don’t need it, I’m above it.”

If not programs, then what?

Relationships and trust, however you establish that, that’s a huge part of it.
If I trust you as a source, I don’t feel I need to check you. And if I don’t trust you, you could be telling me the God’s honest truth and I won’t believe you. If I can give you an example that I think will appeal to you, that will grant me entrée into your cognitive authority, if you manage to find something that’s so super relevant that they will go down that path with you, all the better. Like equity, diversity, and inclusion, have it be infused through everything consistently and across the board. Have it come from someone who is working with patrons on a daily basis.

How should librarians handle the intersection of politics and misinformation?

When I do presentations [on fighting misinformation], librarians say “I can’t mention Trump or this or that, it will upset my community.” If you want to talk about misinformation and disinformation in current events, it is really hard not to include politics. Try to circumvent that false narrative that libraries are neutral; use strategies that supersede the politics. You can have patrons watch movies coming from two sides, such as The Social Dilemma and Hoaxed, and have the conversation. However, some people are not ready to lead this conversation because certain opinions offend their sensibilities, or they don’t know how to lead a conversation and facilitate meaning with folks who don’t agree. It’s easier to do the program about what I believe and get the people who believe what I believe, and then we won’t have a disagreement.

There is a connection between racism stereotypes and misinformation and disinformation. We have to have these conversations consistently even when they are hard, and we need to be more particular about language. If you are going to talk about colorism, use the word colorism, because if you use a term that
is more palatable, it is so palatable that you end up talking about nothing.

What are some other contributing factors to the spread of misinformation?

Some people gravitate to the gossip and political sites because they don’t want to pay for something else.

Can’t they get it from the library?

Not enough people consider the library or librarians as a solution; that connection is not natural enough. I am not even sure the students and folks coming into the academic library would associate the librarians with fake news. They are thinking they are coming to do research, and think of fake news as more popular or political. I had a student tell me, “I don’t know how to deal with fake news within my community,” and I said, “Sure you do, you took the information literacy course,” and they had not made the connection.

If it were more natural, and we could make [accessing paywalled resources via the library] a little bit more streamlined, it would be a huge boon to addressing these issues, because you could have a bevy of vetted, quality resources, and it’s free.

Some researchers have suggested that reading fiction builds empathy, which might help with the emotional dimension you raised earlier. Do you think that would help?

Empathy is part of it, but I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. I don’t know if we are ever going to solve the problem. They have records of fake news being used in newspapers in the late 1800s. I don’t think misinformation and disinformation are ever going to go away entirely. It’s an ongoing problem and we continue to learn.

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Meredith Schwartz


Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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