“Those who know don’t talk, those who talk don’t know.” That old bromide was applied to commentators on broadcast media, though we could currently swap out post for talk. Some of those original talking heads gave us wisdom, others simply nattered on to fill their allotted airtime. Today, the paraphrase fits as what we call “social media” overtake the traditional ones.
The rhetoric and reporting of this election year prove the point. So hungry for something to attract readers, viewers, and listeners, all the media—social, broadcast, print, or whatever—are encouraging ideologs, idiots, and a host of other airheads to post their “news” and opinions—their “information”—without any apparent effort to check the facts. The sources we all watch and read are now full of this unevaluated blabber. Perhaps even worse, we forward it to websites, blogs, what we used to call Listservs, and one another often without any verification or validation of the content. As a result, many of our social networks and news sources have been converted to garbage dumps full of the outrageous, often inaccurate and misinforming, all too frequently racist, prejudiced, and hateful outpourings of the frustrated nuts among us in this diverse culture.
Yes, I know there is a First Amendment and that free expression is basic to our version of democratic self-government. And, yes, fortunately, there is solid information mixed in with the refuse.
The ever-deepening challenge is how to get that real information and useful opinion the attention it deserves. The problem is how to give the people, especially the electorate, the techniques and tools to get at the valid communication and avoid the junk. Given the volume of communication we face, and the powerful and well-financed forces purveying it, it is possibly the most difficult and vital challenge in library history. It reinforces the very reason we created public libraries in the first place.
In this environment of easy access to both data and mis-data, all of it made instantaneously, we are called to do battle against those willing to spend unlimited amounts to deliver corrupted and biased or narrow-minded messages to gain an advantage in the political arena or the commercial marketplace. It is nearly impossible to correct that immense load with the meager resources provided by the government. The struggle is complicated by the growing sentiment that the institution our society created to inform democracy, the public library, is somehow obsolete.
It is a daunting confrontation, and obviously there are no easy solutions at hand. Sure, we can collect and disseminate what we think is valid and unerring information and informed opinion. But pitting that trickle of truth against the tides of bought and paid for propaganda and distortions will not clear up the content of our sources nor improve the flow of knowledge.
The only response that can possibly lead to an enlightened public is to make sure those individuals are alert to the problem and have easy access to the means to help them evaluate what they are hearing, seeing, and reading and develop the confidence and instincts to decide what is valid and what is not. This is not a simple task.
In truth, skillful partisans have worked hard to convince us that what they deliver is the “truth” and that any deviation is untrue. To foster an informed electorate in the midst of this blizzard of messages is the ultimate trial, upping the stakes for those already invested in developing the information literacy skills of others and the urgent mission of those who work to deliver that information.
Since we can’t guarantee that we have provided the “truth,” and we can’t check every other source for veracity, the best we can do is ensure that the public and voters are cognizant of the constant attempts by those with a stake in our decisions to convince us of the trustworthiness of their claims.
We will have made a giant step in the right direction if we guide those we serve to beware and provide them with the means to be suspicious of the messages as well as to find the truth among them.