Lessons Learned from Teaching Classes on Disinformation
I think the best way I can address the three forum questions is to talk about my experience teaching a class on misinformation over the past four years. After the 2016 election, when the terms “fake news”, “post-truth” and “alternative facts” were suddenly everywhere, a colleague and I created a 75 minute class. We based the class on a flier from IFLA, called How to Spot Fake News (which in turn was based on an article from Factcheck.org.) The class was also called How to Spot Fake News.
Of course, not long after that, the term “fake news” was co-opted by politicians to mean “news I don’t want people to believe”, so we had to start talking about what really is and isn’t fake news (and the fact that actual fake news is just one kind of misinformation). However, we kept using the term “fake news” in the title of the class even though it has issues, because we felt that the term helped draw a better audience. We finally replaced the term with “misinformation” in 2020.
While we didn’t plan it this way, the majority of people who show up for the classes are over about 60. They’re people who grew up before the digital information environment really existed, and many of them seem to feel helpless and bewildered about how to navigate it. But the flip side of that is that they're extremely motivated to learn. They know they have a knowledge gap, and they really want to close it. That’s why-- even though it is a self-selected audience of people already motivated--I think it’s still worth doing classes in this format, because they seem to get so much out of it. They’re usually extremely complimentary about the class, and tell us it will help them a lot. So, while I think librarians certainly need to explore other ways of promoting media literacy, presentations like this are still worthwhile.
While there’s a justifiable debate about whether libraries should be politically neutral in general, we decided from the beginning to appear as neutral as possible during the class, and to show examples of misinformation propagating on the left and the right. My impression is that this was essential in getting people in the class to trust us. In fact, several times we had people show up who seemed to be ready to challenge us and accuse us of bias, who then seemed to decide we were actually trustworthy, and even compliment us after the class.
One last impression is that, to teach this topic effectively, it’s important to keep the content up-to-date with memorable, recent examples to demonstrate the different types of misinformation, and the different ways of spotting them. That’s not hard, because you can just mine all the factchecking sites for recent examples. What’s harder is to find such examples that are both illustrative of the point you’re making, and easy to explain quickly. But I think it’s worth it to dig for really good examples that people will remember.
Those the main lessons I've learned from teaching this topic. I would be interested to hear what lessons and experiences other librarians have had.