Fake news, filter bubbles and frustration

It might just be me, but my Facebook, Twitter  and other social network streams have been chock full of articles about ‘fake news‘ since Trump became President elect of the United States. I”m not sure if everyone is being bombarded by this in the same way, but I am. I know that the topic has been in the news – particularly as many are claiming that Facebook played a powerful role in shaping the outcome of the US election; however I also am aware of the fact that everyone’s social media streams contain different information – according to who they follow and what the algorithms that drive these networks have determined is of interest to that individual.

Anyone who has read anything I have written knows that I am passionate about personal learning networks, about librarianship, about information and critical literacy and using social media for learning…and I am sure that these interests have filtered many articles about the dangers and problems of ‘fake news’ directly to me – potentially more so than for others. That’s why I am not sure if everyone has been thinking about it as much as I have…because I know I, along with everyone else, lives in their own personal online filter bubble. I have written about the concept of filter bubbles and the power of algorithms before on this blog – but it seems as though more needs to be said.

I titled this post ‘Fake news, filter bubbles and frustration’, and I will deal with each one in turn. But before I do, let me share this debunked meme which came through on my Facebook feed on election night, and which, in my state of shock, I believed for a few minutes (before heading to Snopes).


It's debunked...read about it here here and here.
It’s debunked…read about it here here and here.

The fact that this meme caught me up reflects the phenomenon of ‘post-truth’ – Relating to, or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief (Oxford Dictionary)In the hours after the election result became known, the surprise win by Trump had me ready to believe anything; and my emotions and personal feelings about Trump coloured my ability to see that such a quote was very unlikely to be true.

Fake news…or is it?

Fake news is the term being thrown around in the media, however like Audrey Watter, I don’t think that the term is accurate. She suggests using the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’, and points to not just social media, but also television news and the power of social media to create virality on a massive scale – so that one person’s misinformed tweet may become swept up into a nation-wide news story. She is joined by Snopes Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski, who argues that the general public has lost faith in the media, as it has been stripped of resources due to increasing competition.  The problem of fake news, or the misinformation and disinformation being spread across social media, has highlighted just how important it is to have well developed information and critical literacy skills.

Pop that bubble!

It’s not just fake news, however, that we need to be aware of. It is also the filter bubble that we exist in. We might be getting accurate information via our social media streams, but the information may only be telling us half the story – the half we want to hear. Algorithms determine what appears on our Facebook pages, and what is rated as most important in our Google searches. These algorithms are carefully constructed around our past online history, our friends and connections, what we buy online….and deliver to us what it has calculated will be most ‘useful’. It is important to remember this – it is our own actions online which have shaped these algorithms – we are not at the mercy of technological determinism, and we can take action.  A good way to test the filter bubble you live in is to do a Google search on a controversial topic – the war in Syria, or Global Warming, or the US Election – and compare your first five hits with others who have done an identical search. Are the results similar? Different? What do they reflect? Our own filter bubble is difficult to break out of, and we are all subject to it (unless you only search Google while using a VPN, which effectively hides your identity, and never access information via social media)…but it is vital that we know it exists, and that we seek ways to access information outside of it. While researchers claim they are developing  ways to pop this bubble, we also must actively seek challenging and opposing views beyond our immediate circle and realise that what we are hearing and reading is not necessarily what everyone else is.

Frustrated and frazzled…

And so we come to the third part of this post; frustration. I am both excited and frustrated by the fact that ‘fake news’ and ‘filter bubbles’ have come to dominate the media recently. Excited because now I am seeing mainstream sites arguing that school libraries and teacher librarians have a more important role than ever to play in creating critically literate students, who are aware of filter bubbles and who do not immediately click to share information without checking the source is credible. Librarians and Teacher Librarians have been trying to convince everyone of this for years. Articles by Bev NovakIt’s time: let’s improve schools’ perceptions of teacher librariansAnne Girolami The impact of great school libraries , Lucy Ivison School libraries change lives  and my own article The importance of school libraries in  the Google age  all present strong evidence for the value and necessity of an expert in information literacy, critical literacy and new technologies, who can support not just the students but the teachers in sourcing high quality resources and in teaching vital strategies for navigating the online landscape.

I am frustrated because of the same reason – we have been arguing this valid, evidence based point for years, and still schools are cutting their teacher librarian hours or worse, closing their libraries altogether. This is despite research which suggests that students need more help than ever to develop critical and information literacy skills, with a recent Stanford study concluding

Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

An article reviewing this Stanford study suggests that parents need to “talk with children about the differences among news sources, how to research authors and to be more skeptical when looking at posts on social media”, but the truth is, many parents do not have the time, and some lack these skills themselves. Families are always a vital part of education; but the Teacher Librarian is trained at a tertiary level in just this area – and has the dual qualification of teaching and librarianship, so they not only understand what the strategies are, but the best way to teach students of different ages about them.

Let’s take charge!

So let’s jump on this opportunity presented by the US election – it’s a silver lining we never saw coming. Share this article far and wide, bring it to the attention of those who manage school budgets and staffing. Print out the articles linked in this post, and scatter them in the staff room.

Read about developing information and critical literacy in my series of three articles and check out the resources on the Pinterest page and share those also. There is no point being frustrated unless we can do something about it, and these resources are a first step.


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