Deciphering fact from fiction, Sno-Isle Libraries tackles fake news

If there’s one thing Oak Harbor librarian Jessica Aws hopes to see in the era of endless information, it’s fewer passive readers.

That is, readers who don’t ask questions of the information they’re given.

Aws and Sno-Isle Libraries are actively addressing false information in the digital age with a presentation on fake news, its history and how to identify it. In the process, their goal is to foster more critical readers on Whidbey.

“This came out of the 2016 election when there were so many clickbait news stories that gained a ton of traction online, especially as the election drew to a close,” Aws said. “People on both sides were taking this information and just running with it. As I was watching that unfold, it struck me how important of a topic this is and how important of a role libraries play in addressing it.”

Aws is bringing her presentation, “Fact or Fiction? Navigating Fake News,” to the Langley Library on Saturday, Oct. 14. It’s the latest presentation Aws is giving on the topic, after hosting the discussion at Oak Harbor Library and in the Oak Harbor School District earlier this year. In the presentation, Aws will cover fake news from its earliest forms to its most recent iterations, and will provide resources that help readers decipher fact from fiction.

For her, it’s important to stress the neutral nature of the presentation.

“We’re completely neutral, and that’s important for us to emphasize,” Aws said. “We’re huge advocates of knowledge and correct information. Teaching people to have those critical literacy skills is what we’re all about. That doesn’t have an agenda, except for maybe a humankind agenda.”

Fake news isn’t as new as the recent headlines might suggest. Aws goes as far back as the late 1800s to when Pulitzer and Hearst publications were some of the few outlets documenting history, thus giving them the ability to change the course of American history. Their reporting even helped lead the country into the Spanish American War, she said.

Her presentation brings the current situation into frame by discussing bots, fake news sites and the echo chambers readers find themselves in as a result of Facebook algorithms that prioritize content that users prefer to see.

It’s an entirely educational presentation with the hope of empowering readers, conservative and liberal alike, Aws says. Resources that fact check, as well as those which give readers background information on a publication’s political orientation, will be suggested. According to Vicky Welfare, branch manager at the Langley Library, educating Whidbey readers is of the utmost importance.

“It’s our job to connect our readers and customers to good information,” Welfare said. “From a librarian standpoint, it’s vital that she will give a presentation on how to evaluate information and help identify if it’s a trustworthy source.”

The educational aspect is vital for Aws and Welfare because they acknowledge this topic will be something future generations will have to face as content continues to flood the Internet. Social media and technology won’t go anywhere anytime soon, Aws says, so critical reading skills are more important than ever before. She hopes to teach kids and adults alike to take a step back to think about the source of the information they’re given, as well as actively seeking out different opinions and news.

If the average reader shakes off their passive reading habits, she says it can empower them.

“We want to make people responsible consumers of information,” Aws said. “There’s nothing wrong with having your own views and opinions, but being cognizant of misinformation can really help formulate your opinion, rather than passively consuming information.”