Kristen Calvert, a manager at the Dallas Public Library, fields a lot of questions from patrons. Some are about a tricky crossword clue. Others are about the weather. When elections roll around, patrons want to know what information they can trust.
During the last election cycle, Calvert recalled, one woman was particularly dogged in rooting out accurate information.
"She would call and ask us if we can find information about what she was seeing on TV," Calvert said, describing the patron's pursuit of facts.
Calvert and librarians across the country are gearing up for a new round of inquiries as Americans face a deluge of information about the 2020 election on social media, news sites and television. Ever since the 2016 election raised awareness of websites that pose as news outlets but publish false stories, as well as social media posts and videos promoted by coordinated networks of fake accounts, librarians have been working on a common set of principles for helping regular web users sort fact from fiction.
The challenge isn't letting up, as social networks continue to identify networks of fake accounts pushing political content, and as inaccurate information about the coronavirus pandemic spreads. With the 2020 US presidential election, the flow of information, trustworthy or not, will only intensify. These days, the information that needs checking could come from a news story or, just as easily, a tweet, a Facebook meme or a YouTube or TikTok video.
While false news stories and coordinated efforts to influence public opinion are nothing new, the problem is more in our faces than before. In 2017, Facebook took down accounts and pages associated with one network posing as legitimate users and commenting on current events. In 2019, it took down 50 such networks, a spokesperson said.
Facebook said the growth in takedowns is in part due to its efforts, and the efforts of groups like the Atlantic Council, Graphika and others, to identify the groups. The campaigns are getting harder to run as a result of this work. Nonetheless, internet users are concerned about the integrity of what they're seeing online. According to a 2018 Gallup poll done with the Knight Foundation, people in the US think about 65% of the news they see in their social media feeds is misinformation, which is generally defined as incorrect information that people share without vetting. People in the US also think nearly 40% of pieces in newspapers, TV and radio news programs are misinformation.
As you brace yourself for the blasts of info leading up to November, these are some of the suggestions librarians have for figuring out how reliable it all is.
Whether you're looking at a meme or a news story, you can check where the information inside came from. A reliable news story will give the source of facts, whether it's academic research, an expert or a first-hand witness to events. If that isn't listed, you should keep looking before accepting something as true.
You can also look up information about the publication itself and find who owns it and whether they have any known political ties.
Unfortunately, memes don't often cite their sources, and it can be hard to know where they came from. One meme claimed two high school students in pro-Trump T-shirts tricked presidential candidate Bernie Sanders into posing for a photograph with them. But fact-checking site Snopes traced the photograph to an event where Sanders spoke at a high school and then posed with any student who wanted a selfie, regardless of who was on their T-shirts.
Another meme claimed Trump supporters had thoughtlessly left behind piles of trash after a New Jersey neighborhood during a rally with the president, but attendees said they were forced to leave behind chairs and blankets they used to camp out before the event because they couldn't bring them inside the venue or retrieve them afterward, Snopes found.
If you're looking at a meme with a caption that you aren't sure about, you can also check it out on your own. Take a screenshot of the photo in question, and then run a reverse image search on Google. That can lead you to historical archives or news outlets that have factually captioned the photo.
Even when you find the source of the information, you still might not know if you can trust it. For example, an article or whole news site might seem biased to you. The next step is to see if you can find the same facts reported in a different source, said Nicole Cooke, an associate professor in the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science.
This can help you move past the spin of a particular news outlet, according to Cooke, who wrote a book on the challenges of finding trustworthy information online.
"You don't have to like The New York Times. You don't have to like Breitbart," she said, "but are you finding the same information in multiple places, even if the slant is slightly different?"
One way to find multiple sources on the same issue is to use an app like Read Across the Aisle, which analyzes news sites and suggests sources with a different angle for you to read, said Kurtis Kelly, a communications coordinator at the Estes Valley Library in Colorado.
"Even if it's once a week, read a site that's on the other side," Kelly said. "If nothing else, you're getting a sense of how the other side is seeing things."
Getting information from a variety of sources won't just help you confront bias in news outlets or YouTube channels. It will also help you confront it yourself. That's something a lot of people struggle to do, said Calvert, the library manager at the Dallas Public Library. Her library participated in a pilot program by the American Library Association to offer media literacy training to the public.
"A lot of people think that everyone else needs it," Calvert said about media literacy, "but they don't think that they need it."
One of the toughest biases to shake is confirmation bias. That's when we seek out and accept information that confirms what we already believe and avoid information that doesn't. It's a shortcut we use when we think we already know the answer to a question, and it keeps us from having to reject closely held beliefs.
If you want to be really sure of something, though, you should try to prove yourself wrong. It's counterintuitive, but testing a theory you think is wrong can help you confirm the truth much faster than simply trying to verify your current beliefs. Psychologist Peter Wason explored this idea in a study of how people reason in 1960, and found participants who were unwilling to test alternative hypotheses repeatedly failed to solve a math puzzle.
Cooke, the library science professor, said one of the main reasons people struggle to find high-quality information is they don't have time or energy. All of these suggestions take work, and social media can be an exhausting place to try to learn more about political topics.
Instead, you should consider having a conversation with your "smartest friend," Cooke said. If possible, do it face to face, over the phone or on a video chat. An old-school conversation with someone you respect may be a lower-stakes way to encounter new ideas -- one in which both parties are less likely to attack each other if a disagreement comes up.
If you're aiming to dig even deeper on a topic, librarians want to help. Mimosa Shah, adult program coordinator at the Skokie Public Library in Illinois says librarians are happy to help you find sources of information when you aren't sure about something.
They'll also show you how they found the information, setting you up to do the same thing the next time you feel curious -- or skeptical -- about something you see online.
"We want to continue to advocate for the open exchange of ideas," she said, and to help people "follow stories as far as they can go."