Monday, January 26, 2015

Of herbs and “click bait”.

Growing up we spent a lot of time with our uncle who taught us how to recognize wild edible herbs and plants. He taught us that it was not something you could just go do; you had to have a lot of knowledge and follow specific rules before you could uproot a plant and make it into a tasty snack for your campsite friends.
As a librarian this philosophy of keeping educated and following the rules has helped me a great deal in my searches for information for patrons.
The world of the reference librarian is one that is composed mainly of knowing the answers to tough questions, or at least knowing the fundamental first steps to take in order to find those answers. When we go to pluck up a fresh herb of information for a patron, we need to be sure we’re not handing them basil and not hemlock.
This hones us to be rather specific in our search techniques. We develop tried and true methods for getting you the information you need. We also strive to maintain a solid footing on the ever-changing waves of internet databases and current published materials. It also causes us to develop a very cynical eye when we’re browsing in between reference interviews. The subtle differences between verifiable facts and poisonous falsehoods can be difficult to discern. As we keep ourselves abreast of the world and its news, we work spot fake news or ‘click bait’ as it is sometimes called with the dead-eyed accuracy of a professional botanist inspecting edible flora in the wild.
The sad reality is that with the rise of internet connectivity, the prevalence of false, or at least unsubstantiated, news has also risen. And while this is lamentable, it also serves as a teaching point to help all of to be a bit more skeptical about what we read and pass on, without first verifying the source.
The reality is, we are all often susceptible to internet content that is too good to be true.
And it may surprise you to find out that there are websites designed to give you the power to create fake news articles and content to fool your friends. As an experiment, I went to one of these websites, just to what kind of ‘news’ it would generate.
I was horrified (and just a little bit wowed) to see something right at the top of that page which made my heart sink. My favorite axe-slinging Viking from a popular TV show would not be returning the next season, citing wage disputes. It was right below a typically reliable news source logo and so, my initial reaction was one of disappointment and outrage and just plain sadness, just as it was intended.
However, after a few brief seconds I was reminded by the little skeptical librarian on my shoulder that this was designed to fool me into thinking it was real. I breathed a sigh of relief and read with growing fascination a news article that seemed in every way to be the ‘real thing’.
It occurred to me, then, that what was supposed to happen next was for one friend to share it with another and so on, inciting a viral reaction, until bona fide news organizations picked up and dismantled it.
It is a trap we can all fall into, and so, must be careful to cite our sources.
To begin, when you read something on the internet, train yourself to doubt its veracity until you’ve had a chance to look it up on a few other news websites or on one of our many library databases. If you come up with a few hits on this subject, read another article on the subject to see if what you read at first seems to hold up.
At this point, once you’ve established that it is a true story, you can also check the credentials of the reporting journalist or blogger. If you can satisfactorily find proof that what you’re reading was written by someone with a general understanding for journalistic integrity, you should be fine.
However, no matter what you do, whenever you have a twinge of doubt, obey it. If something seems fishy to you, it probably is. For this reason there are several websites designed to root out scams and false news (or bad quotes!) just to keep you safe. There are also great books and other materials available on our website to help you. Always and for any reason, call or visit your library. We will help you figure out the truth.

If you’re still not sure, the best thing to do is to leave it unshared. As my uncle used to say about wild edible herbs, “If in doubt, throw it out.”

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