The Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year is 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.” This word seems all too appropriate for 2016 as social media has proven particularly well-suited to creating a post-truth future. There have been numerous reports about the spread and influence of fake news reports that thrive on confirmation bias, people’s tendency to believe things that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. This is compounded by social media’s tendency to create filter bubbles, where people tend to only see opinions with which they would agree. You only need to look at the Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed Blue Feed site to see how differently people are seeing the world.
On top of all this comes a new study by the Stanford History Education Group where the authors were “taken aback” by how poorly students were able to identify fake and highly biased sources of information. As libraries have adapted to a world where “everything is online” teaching how to evaluate information sources has become a key part of our mission. In Jan of 2016, the Association of College and Research Libraries formally adopted a Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, with the first frame being “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual.” This frame holds as its central tenant that students who master it should be able to identify reliable content, while also recognizing that authority is not always black and white. At first glance, this might be taken to fit in with the post-truth society; if we question everything, how do we know what is real. However, as Kathleen Higgins points out in a recent commentary in Nature, this type of “epistemic relativism” should not be taken to mean that truth does not matter. Instead, it means that “truth” can be tricky and often requires more thoughtful reflection and investigation. It requires us to take the time to examine and understand all sides and question our own biases before reaching a conclusion.
If you find your own social media to be an echo chamber, one simple thing you can do (in Facebook anyway) is to make sure you click, like or comment on posts from people whose views don’t necessarily match your own. Otherwise, Facebook’s algorithms will hide posts from those people and you might miss out on alternative points of views.