Information and Digital Literacy Skills in Service of Credible Information

The digital revolution has changed the way we communicate, share information, and see the world. Recent research suggests ways in which users can more confidently navigate and evaluate online source credibility in order to avoid being fooled by fake news or other inauthentic and inaccurate claims.

11 January 2017

The digital revolution has changed the way we communicate, share information, and see the world. Recent research suggests ways in which users can more confidently navigate and evaluate online source credibility in order to avoid being fooled by fake news or other inauthentic and inaccurate claims.

Over the past few months, there has been much discussion in the media over the importance of digital literacy and heightening the focus on the dilemma of how we prevent fake news from spreading. As digital citizens, on a daily basis, we are confronted with similar scenarios not unlike those listed below.

  • Fox News says "Trump staffer reported that Donald Trump was held up at gunpoint in New England pizza parlour."

It's lunch hour, and you have just shared this great Fox News article about Donald Trump with your friends on Facebook. Your friends go on to share and like this post numerous times.

  • Dr. Google diagnoses your kid with mumps

It's 3 am. You're dying to get to sleep. Except your child is so sick, her list of symptoms includes fever, chills, cough, and orange eyes. What do you do? Most people would trust Dr. Google to give them the answer (e.g., the mumps, according to the top search results). You tell the doctor the next day your child has the mumps. But is this diagnosis correct?

  • Expert opinion says organic food can prevent Autism

Scrolling through Reddit, you come across a post that says "latest expert advice based on evidence in recent peer-reviewed medical journals has suggested if prospective fathers eat a strict vegan and organic diet that it can reduce a child's risk of autism by 80%." You send the article to your brother and his wife and then reshare it on Twitter. Is this information properly peer reviewed?

Recent cutting-edge research by Jill Kavanaugh and Bart Lenart suggests that the "Perfect Storm" of fake news is created by a deficiency in our society's information literacy skills and our understanding of source credibility. Lenart is an instructor in the Department of Philosophy and a Masters student enrolled in the University of Alberta's School of Library and Information Studies. He co-authored this research in a chapter entitled "No Shortcuts to Credibility Evaluation: The Importance of Expertise and Information Literacy"[1] with Kavanaugh, who is a media and information studies researcher based out of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children's Hospital.Given the ubiquity of the Internet and the globalized nature of our society, the potential to recklessly spread misinformation is high. This research suggests that in order to stem the tidal wave of fake news, we, as a society, need to get better at judging credible information without taking shortcuts.

[1] Kavanaugh, J. R., & Lenart, B. A. (2016). No Shortcuts to Credibility Evaluation: The Importance of Expertise. Establishing and Evaluating Digital Ethos and Online Credibility, 22.

How do we judge the best information?
Many library and information studies professionals advocate for the use of simple checklists that highlight aspects of accuracy, authority, currency, coverage and objectivity of the information and often urge people to fall back on expert "peer reviewed" information. "However, it's a trickier proposition than just creating a simple checklist for people to follow…," according to Lenart.

Sadly, most people don't have adequate information literacy skills. "How do you determine what is truthful and credible?" says Lenart. Further, often many news and websites fall into the gray area of providing authentic news or accurate health information (and can also be associated with a particular political or commercial angle).

Practically, he says "... would you pull out a checklist when you surf the Internet or before sharing an article on Facebook?". This research shows that tools such as digital literacy checklists cannot adequately replace the need for comprehensive lifelong information literacy education. This is an essential component of general education at a young age that should continue into the undergraduate and graduate levels to ensure we ultimately create a information literate society.

Expert advice isn't what it used to be
The research highlights the recent failures in the peer review process in some prominent medical journals and the reliance on expert knowledge to prove or disapprove any given theory. This may leave many people, including doctors and nurses, unable to judge if scientific research is credible and trustworthy enough to recommend to their families or patients.

Lenart also highlights the problematic and changing nature of expert knowledge. "Our research shows that information is no longer held in the ivory tower of academia," he says. Some disciplines place a higher value on non-peer reviewed resources than others. According to Lenart "our study shows that fake news, as well as various non-credible sources offering all kinds of advice, continue to flourish partly because we as a society lack critical thinking skills and exposure to digital and information literacy at an early age; a robust information literacy toolkit will enable people to more confidently evaluate the credibility of online sources, particularly when the stakes are high, such as when dealing with the health of your child."

So, what's the future?

Lenart and Kavanaugh offer three simple solutions to help slow the tidal wave of fake news. Embedded librarianship in larger organizations is essential, especially in the area of healthcare. They suggest that we must teach children, starting at a young age, critical thinking skills and information literacy/digital literacy, and we must also do more research in this area. Most importantly, the authors stress that young students need to be made aware of these issues early on so that they learn how to develop a critical approach to evaluating information and online sources.