To Fight Misinformation, Bring our Libraries Online

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Misinformation -- how it develops, how it spreads, and why people believe it -- is an unavoidable topic in current information policy debates. And though headlines have largely focused on the high-profile impacts of misinformation on everything from public health to voting behaviors and technological literacy, there’s another, more important question at stake: How do we combat it when it emerges?

Misinformation takes advantage of the unavoidable fact that no one can be an expert at everything. People’s impressions about the world, its contours and rules, are based on some combination of personal experience and knowledge imparted by outside sources. This is why fights about how we teach U.S. history to young children resonate so strongly; for many of those kids, that’s all the history instruction they’ll ever receive. The rest of the knowledge is just what they absorb from the media they consume and the other people they talk to.  

Misinformation exploits this basic fact of human nature -- that no one can be an expert in everything -- by meeting people where they naturally are, and filling in the gaps in their knowledge with assertions that seem “plausible enough.” Sometimes, these assertions are misleading, false, or flatly self-serving (though they do lead to some spectacular twitter fights). In aggregate, these gap-fillers add up to construct a totally alternate reality whose politics, science, law, and history bear only a passing resemblance to our own. And in the absence of accessible, high-quality, primary source information, it’s next to impossible to convince people that what they’ve been told isn’t true.

Because people are increasingly online, that’s where misinformation peddlers go to spread their assertions. Good information -- the kind that can debunk misinformation -- is not. High-quality, vetted, peer-reviewed secondary sources are, unfortunately, increasingly hard to come by, online or off. Scientific and medical research is frequently locked behind paywalls and in expensive journals; legal documents are stuck in the pay-per-page hell that is the PACER filing system; and digital-only information can be erased, placing it out of public reach for good (absent some industrious archivists).

Libraries are uniquely positioned to address this problem, as they have access to this kind of primary source information. Technologies such as controlled digital lending (CDL), if widely adopted, would allow libraries to lend out digital copies of works to their patrons at a moment’s notice, without increasing the number of copies in circulation. It would inject specialized primary sources into the digital sphere, where they are most sorely needed.

CDL empowers libraries to overcome two of the major obstacles currently facing our information ecosystem. First, copyright terms don’t track onto the average demand lifespan for a primary source; when demand for a work sags -- as it does for nearly every printed work -- it’s no longer profitable to print, and the book drops off the market. Copyright terms all too often ensure that the lost work stays off the market for decades past its author’s death, creating the very real risk that the work is lost entirely. By digitizing their collections for electronic lending, libraries can make these disappearing works available to their patrons in a format that they can use and access, and keep the works from disappearing altogether.

Second, CDL allows libraries to offer information in most people’s native information environment -- online. Digital lending allows for low-friction, limited transfer of quality information to lenders at the time and place where they need it.

As John Dewey said, “Everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings into sets and cliques, into antagonistic sects and factions, and thereby undermines the democratic way of life.” Libraries -- a backbone of American democracy, and the ones best poised to respond to the existential threat of misinformation -- need to be able to overcome those barriers to protect our democracy.

"SMH10 Patient reading" by bezanson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

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