Moderator Pick
January 30th, 2021

Whatever happened to Truthiness

Hello everyone! I love reading all these great ideas and I’m glad I get to be a part of the discussion.

As other folks have already discussed, identifying credible sources can involve a lot of trust. As someone who trusts established news media I will usually assume that articles found in The New York Times and Washington Post are credible and full of factual information. My personal favorite is NPR. Incidentally, I’ve known some conservatives who dislike NPR for supposed liberal bias and I’ve got a few leftist friends in Minnesota who facetiously refer to the local MPR station as ‘My Pentagon Radio.’

The key word above is “established,” as in, they have already proven themselves trustworthy by providing verifiable information and offering transparent retractions and edits when they (inevitably) make mistakes. When vetting a new source, I will often use these established sources as benchmarks to verify new information. If the facts align whenever I check, over time the new source will build trust and eventually I will stop verifying. Incidentally, many people will trust their community librarians when they need help finding information.

But facts are facts. You can verify facts. Identifying bias and what it means for the information being imparted is a nuanced practice that cannot be distilled into simple fact or fiction. Biased sources aren’t inherently untrustworthy just as unbiased information isn’t inherently factual. I can say “my eyes shoot lasers,” and not express an opinion but the lack of opinion doesn’t mean I’m not lying. I can say “my eyes are brown and pretty,” and even if you don’t think my eyes are pretty that doesn’t change the underlying fact that they are, indeed, brown.

Of course, bias includes more than opinion. A biased source frames a narrative a certain way and may make an argument without explicitly making an argument. For example, earlier I referenced “conservatives who dislike NPR for supposed liberal bias,” and the way I phrased that comment is telling. By using the word “supposed” it implies that I personally find NPR to be a more centrist voice. I follow this up by mentioning my “leftist friends” which not only tells you the type of people I choose to surround myself with, but I also use their political affiliation as an adjective to their person while using the opposing ideology as a noun to describe a group, which is reductive and potentially dehumanizing. Finally, by framing it as “conservatives who dislike the supposed,” I am centering the idea that I think those people are wrong in their analysis. In the example my friends are making a silly joke about public radio being a neoliberal propaganda machine but the “conservatives I’ve known” are just wrong. Even though I am ostensibly providing a “both sides” review of NPR in order to underscore the moderate nature of their reporting I still have an agenda.

In the case of the repulsive phrase, “Alternative Facts,” I think it’s worth reconsidering its origin: Here, we see Kellyanne Conway dodging accountability for Sean Spicer’s straight up lie about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. Chuck Todd is asking why the first press briefing of the new administration began with “a provable falsehood,” Notice how he didn’t use the word “lie,” instead opting for a tactful euphemism to avoid sounding antagonistic. Still, Conway presents herself as antagonized (“If we’re going to talk that way...”) and executes an elegant “no u,” by turning the conversation to an earlier incident involving the bust of MLK Jr. to illustrate an apparent hypocrisy: The press, eager for Trump to do something racist, ignored the administration’s immediate accomplishments and manufactured controversy out of something completely innocuous. Todd tries to illustrate the difference between the two incidents and refocus the conversation but the damage has been done, he acknowledges that the press has also reported “a provable falsehood.” Conway is able to assert Alternative Facts and when Todd becomes incredulous she just plows ahead. He tries to argue that these little degradations of norms are meaningful but he doesn’t understand that this is a feature, not a bug. Trump’s whole personna is built on the degradation of norms.

No serious critical thinker can believe Spicer’s easily debunked lie, but Conway’s rhetorical trick makes that irrelevant. She presents a binary opposition, the Press and the President, and both sides aren’t “lying” necessarily, both sides are just operating with a different set of facts. A Trump supporter doesn’t have to believe Spicer’s lie because it just doesn’t matter. So he wants his inauguration crowd to be bigger than it was, what is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?

A bias that adheres to a more liberal or more conservative worldview doesn’t necessarily invalidate the content of a news story. There are important questions like, What is the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens? and How should the United States conduct its economic or foreign policy? I have my opinions and I welcome discussion and debate around these issues, all viewpoints should be represented here. But if there is a viewpoint that is openly antagonistic to facts, rejects science, advocates for voter suppression, and/or caters to bigotry I find it illegitimate. It is by definition, “bad information” and should be rejected by the information literate.

All that is to say, in an effort to appear neutral and unbiased and nonpartisan, Librarians avoided pushing back too hard against the Trump administration’s rhetoric and I think that was a mistake. It hurt our credibility as both information professionals and as a democratic institution. If we are working to counter disinformation we can’t be afraid to explicitly counter disinformation, especially when it’s coming from the White House. I’m old enough to remember when Librarians took an aggressive stance against the Patriot Act over privacy concerns. Where has that energy been the past four years?

Lateral reading and other research skills are pieces of information literacy that educators can use to encourage critical thought. But time to sift through multiple sources and interrogate bias is a privilege many citizens cannot afford. Being an informed citizen shouldn’t require scholarly research. In an equitable democratic society, reliable and trustworthy news should be accessible and obvious. Librarians, champions of community and access, are in the unique position to leverage their community’s trust in them and act as de facto arbiters of information. We should aggressively advocate for ourselves as such.

It is not enough to point patrons to the News Literacy Project, libraries should be the News Literacy Project. Every library system’s social media accounts should look like Steak-Umm’s Twitter feed. We have expertise, we should utilize whatever platforms we have access to and be loud about it. And let's be brave the next time a demagogue runs for president. I miss the halcyon days of Truthiness, I don’t ever want to look back fondly on the quaintness of Alternative Facts.

Tags: Alternative facts, critical thinking, Democracy, information literacy, Public trust

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Comments (3)

Comments (3)

Hi Paris:

Thanks for joining our conversation. I love this: "Being an informed citizen shouldn’t require scholarly research."

What are the steps a librarian/library needs to take to become the de facto arbiters of information?

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It has a lot to do with perception and trust, and that can be affected on a large scale and a small scale.

At the local level, this means building trust within the communities we serve and then leveraging that trust to push our literacy agenda. I thought Ling J’s post about building trust was excellent. Many folks already have some amount of trust in their local public library and will turn to us when they need help finding a specific piece of information or need to do in depth research. We can build on that by being active and visible members of our communities, participating in events, partnering with local organizations, etc.

Jessie S made some keen observations about social media in their post about effectively using tools. Much like visibly participating in physical community events can build trust, active social media accounts can achieve the same results online. By building rapport and reliability on our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, we will have a positive reputation when we weigh in on discourse.

On a national level, we have organizations like News Literacy Project and NewsGuard doing great work promoting information literacy. NewsGuard’s website boasts about how librarians all over the country use their browser extension. Which is great, because it’s great. They also mention the many journalists they employ as analysts, and their advisory board is a very impressive roster- however they aren’t librarians. It would go a long way for our credibility as information literacy experts if we were actively participating in the production of these tools.

For every person I meet that believes public libraries are essential pieces of a healthy democracy, there are two who think we’re irrelevant. ALA has the “Libraries Transform” campaign which is a pretty good expression of the ways we contribute to our communities. This is the sort of campaign that could be pushed further, and could really influence public perception with more exposure, much like Alexandra L’s post describes.


I cannot agree more that "alternative fact" and the newer "alternative reality" are terrible terms that need to never be used. By even including the word fact it seems to give legitimacy to the lie.

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