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A Fake News Followup

One interesting thing about fake news is that people tend not to recognize it when they want to believe the claims. People like to go out of their way to avoid acknowledging sensationalistic propaganda when they think it might be emanating from “their” side.

Last week I wrote about an article I stumbled across regarding libraries that happened to be in an online publication no self-respecting person with minimal critical thinking skills would be caught dead reading. Coincidentally, that article was in a publication of the right-wing echo chamber.

I think that’s what prompted someone to comment that when it comes to fake news, “the ALA, in typical form, only seems to want to go after conservatives.” I do hope the commenter wasn’t confusing this blog with anything propagated by the ALA. If anything, the AL is the bête noire of the ALA.

The fake news incident was random, but I’ll issue a challenge. Send me articles about libraries in fake news outlets from the left-wing echo chamber, and I’ll be happy to write about them and how ridiculous the publications are.

Another reader replied that, “They ALWAYS go after conservatives. We’re the big baddies for some reason. The ‘fake news’ things I’ve seen are normally on left leaning sites. Yes, I’ve seen a few on the right as well, but not to the degree of the other.”

Here we get into murkier water. The ALA, or perhaps more particularly the SRRT within ALA, does always go after conservatives, or indeed sometimes anyone to the right of Fidel Castro.

However, the rest of the comment is what I would consider anecdotal evidence. What we individually encounter might lead us to form opinions, but it’s not really evidence.

Is fake news, or my extension of it to sensationalistic propaganda, more prominent on the right than the left? I have no idea. Has anyone done a valid, exhaustive study of the subject? If they have, feel free to post it.

The anecdotal evidence is just as easily explained by something like confirmation bias. We see what we believe.

For my part, I see garbage articles from various political perspectives, sometimes posted gleefully to social media platforms by people who think everyone else is as gullible and partisan as they are.

If a politicized headline makes you really happy or angry, you should assume that whatever article it announces is problematic in some way. If everyone followed that advice, fake news and sensationalistic propaganda would go away, regardless of the political slant.

There was one strange comment. In my post, I wrote: “The headline is still awful: ‘Christian student suspended after challenging Muslim prof’s claim that Jesus wasn’t crucified.’ Evidence? Zilch.”

Someone replied, with a link to alleged evidence, that, “What you say is ‘zilch’ evidence is actually the March 24 suspension letter given to the Rollins College student. How about a correction?”

Instead of a correction, how about a lesson in careful reading instead?

The alleged evidence is a suspension letter, which does indeed show that the student was suspended. That fact isn’t contested.

However, the headline claims the student was suspended “after challenging Muslim prof’s claim that Jesus wasn’t crucified.”

There are two ways to read that sentence. First, it can be read as two disconnected events. 1) the student, allegedly, challenged the Muslim prof’s claim that Jesus wasn’t crucified. And 2) the student was suspended.

This way of reading assumes no causation between the events. Given the evidence presented, including in the suspension letter, that’s the only reasonable way to interpret the sentence.

However, the headline clearly implies that the two events are connected. 1) the student challenges the professor’s assertion, and 2) because of that challenge the student is suspended.

The evidence for those two events being causally connected? Zilch. There’s no public evidence so far other than the student’s assertion that the professor made that claim, and that he challenged it, and that the challenge caused his suspension.

The suspension letter itself mentions no such event, but does say, “your actions have constituted a threat of disruption within the operations of the College and jeopardize the safety and well-being of members of the College community and yourself.”

How plausible is it that a college student merely challenging any professor’s claim about anything by itself would lead to a suspension? Not plausible at all.

Now that might have happened in this situation. This might be the extraordinary situation that tests the rule, but so far there’s no public evidence for that whatsoever other than the claims of the student himself. Zilch.

At this point, if you believe that the two events are connected, it’s because you want to believe, not because you have been persuaded by the evidence.

It’s easy to believe these stories should be judged by politics, but instead they should be judged by critical thinking ability.

If you believe these stories based on the evidence presented so far, that doesn’t make you conservative. It just makes you stupid. Stupidity isn’t exclusive to any political viewpoint, no matter what partisans want to believe.

So here’s another lesson by a librarian on how to respond to fake news. I’m sure this one will be just as effective as all the other ones librarians are offering these days.

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Comments

  1. Ouch! It hurts to have my suspicions about the effectiveness of library instruction confirmed.

  2. anonymous coward says:

    The bête noire or L’Enfant Terrible?

  3. Unfortunately headlines often have little to do with the story and most people don’t read past the headline. Library stories about jailing 5 year olds for missing books is a good example. In regular news the Washington Post article that made up quotes from a conservative politician regarding not feeding the poor is a good example of fake news. The Salon headline about the Syria bombing is an example of the disconnect between headline and story.

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