Due July 25, 2016
CIL - Internet @ Schools - CIL Sept/Oct 2016 Issue
Political Literacy Can Be Learned!
By Stephen Abram
Political literacy is a set of abilities considered necessary for citizens to
participate in a society's government. It includes an understanding of how
government works and of the important issues facing society, as well as
the critical thinking skills to evaluate different points of view.
Political literacy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In today’s political environment there is a fog of information. It tests everyone –
adult and young adult alike - and our critical thinking skills. Separating fact from
opinion is hard enough. Combine that with public opinion polls, massive quoting
of ‘statistics’, personal stories that elucidate and obfuscate and everyone is
overwhelmed by data and information and spin doctoring run amuck.
Librarians care about information literacy. We care about using facts to support
arguments, points of view and debates. In fact, we’re critical pieces of the
educational infrastructure and train or mediate these issues. Librarians:
Select quality resources
Curate collections that support good research
Acquire the ‘best’ reference sources
And mediate the world of the web by curating website collections and
recommendations as well as providing the metadata and search systems
that assist in the alleviation of these issues.
We train! Ourselves and our users
That noted, most searching happens outside of our libraries. Most information
flow is gate-kept by sometimes biased or selective media organizations in
television, cable, or news (print and online). Social networks share ‘facts’
through everything from memes, infographics, stories, videos, and just plain
posts. Add to that that your filter bubble (more on this later) is rarely ‘pure’ and
it’s influenced by your own social networks, search behaviours, beliefs,
background, education and worldview.
The role of authority and brand has been wholly disrupted. There is good and
bad and sometimes just incomplete data, facts and information out there. There
are quality new ‘brands’ out there as well as struggling older brands that
occasionally get caught up in the hunt for ratings and eyeballs. Whom can we
It’s a dog’s breakfast out there!
Can we come to the rescue? Information literacy isn’t a simple construct. It
encompasses so much and I thought this column, coming out at the end of a very
long U.S. presidential campaign, might be timely.
Make no mistake, I have my preferences in politics and my own beliefs and
worldviews. That’s not the point. As a librarian, my core belief is that information
matters, truth and facts matter. That said, Stephen Colbert noted that “Facts
have a well-known liberal bias.” He has also noted the new amorphous trend
towards ‘truthiness’ over the last decade. Wikipedia defines “truthiness as a
quality characterizing a "truth" that a person making an argument or assertion
claims to know intuitively "from the gut" or because it "feels right" without regard
to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” For example perhaps we
feel the murder rate has done nothing if not gone up because we watch a lot of
crime shows or our local situation is different, when the facts are the opposite. A
colder than normal winter may prove to some that global warming is not true.
This column is about the core sources that form a digital citizenry’s corpus of
tools that assist the enquiring mind. When we hear or read a ‘claim’, where so
we go get the real dope? Whom do we trust? Who has the authority,
independence, and resources to investigate claims and see the facts to form an
information opinion? Although some librarians see ‘information’, the noun as the
core of our profession, I see the verb as the core – ‘to inform and be informed.’
So this challenge is not just for school librarians to prepare the next generation to
be informed but for all librarians to assist the whole population – student and
adults alike – to evolve in a quickly changing political environment. Every tire
needs re-treading occasionally.
The Google (and other search engines)
I recently did over two dozen public focus groups with regular folks – teens,
adults, seniors. One of the questions I asked them was how the search results on
Google were ranked? The winning answer by far was ‘popularity.’ Most (not all)
search engines do not rank solely on popularity. We need to train people beyond
this assumption because it affects their credulity about the results that they get
online. Key messages and learning could include:
How are search engine results ranked?
What is the role of advertising?
What is the role of search engine optimization (SEO)?
What is the role of localization and GIS in search?
Can ‘bad’ people push content into my results? Who has an interest in my
Librarians know the answers to these questions. We need to share.
Two key issues to know:
At present Google and search engines in general are having a banner (profit)
year. In the U.S. both mainstream parties have huge teams of librarians and
search engine optimizers ensuring that their candidates and their policies are
hitting the top of the results. People need to know the role of GIS in targeting
SEO in the search engine’s algorithm. The GIS data is usable to a very fine
granular level. You can target different results at the state level for Senate
campaign or the district level for congressional campaigns. Fine. Beyond that you
can use census data to tune the messaging for Latino vs. Cuban
neighbourhoods, high income vs. low income neighbourhoods, white vs. black
neighbourhoods and more. What one person sees on the results may differ
widely to another person’s results blocks away. You can also target by certain
types of areas – you can acquire targeting zones to cover just university and
college campuses, for example. There are white-hat and black-hat optimizers in
the wild west of the WWW.
Combine the above with the more recent targeting tools for mobile and social
networks (social media optimization SMO) and you see extremely sophisticated
ads and results used on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr,
Twitter and more. Indeed, the DNC launched their Pokémon GO presence and
targeting as the July convention commenced. The RNC has been a huge user of
Twitter at every level, famously right to the top. YouTube, Vine and Periscope are
also channels of information in video format that have social components.
Much ado is made about ‘facts’ that come out of these sources alone. I try to
check the facts but even I can be subject to confirmation bias! We all need to
build political literacy skills.
Do you look for information that confirms you point of view or biases and beliefs?
Or do you look for information that challenges what you hear and know? It’s not
so black and white and we all are more likely somewhere on a spectrum of
When we challenge a ‘fact’ or point of view and need to know if it’s ‘true’ or can
be substantiated we must first be aware of the issues and challenges associated
with what we receive through search engines and social media.
We also must be aware of our own ‘filter bubble.’ “A filter bubble is a result of a
personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what
information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such
as location, past click behavior, user profile, and search history) and, as a result,
users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints,
effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. Prime
examples are Google Personalized Search results and Facebook’s personalized
news stream. The term was coined by internet activist Eli Pariser in his book by
the same name; according to Pariser, users get less exposure to conflicting
viewpoints and are isolated intellectually in their own informational bubble.
Pariser related an example in which one user searched Google for "BP" and got
investment news about British Petroleum while another searcher got information
about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and that the two search results pages were
"strikingly different". The bubble effect may have negative implications for civic
discourse, according to Pariser, but there are contrasting views suggesting the
effect is minimal and addressable.” (Wikipedia:
Here are some readings that provide useful overviews and insights into the world
of fact checking. I’ve tried to include sites beyond the US – including Canada, the
UK and Europe. Heaven knows that the summer Brexit vote created new flows
of fact fog.
Teaching political literacy. [UK] Citizenship Foundation
Full Fact, Full Fact is the UK's independent fact checking organization
PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times
FactCheck.org A Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center
FlackCheck.org is the political literacy companion site to the award-
winning FactCheck.org. It provides resources to help students recognize
flaws in arguments.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
The Duke Reporters’ Lab maintains a database of global fact-checking
The Duke Reporters’ Lab maintains a database of global fact-checking
Pew Research Center: Journalism and Media Project
Poynter: A Global Leader in Journalism
United States National Literacy Policies EDCI 874 National Literacy
Policy Analysis > Political Literacy
FactsCan Canada Canada's political fact-checker.
Independent. Transparent. Non-partisan. http://factscan.ca/
538 Blog FiveThirtyEight http://fivethirtyeight.com/
Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis — hard numbers —
to tell compelling stories about elections, politics, sports, science,
economics and culture.
Thinking About Fact-Checking
“The rise — and limits — of political fact-checking”
“The Limits of Fact-Checking”
Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous essay “On Bullshit.”
Why We’re Post-Fact by Peter Pomerantsev, Granta
So here are some sites that can be added to people’s personal learning as
personal kits. Many people know the top ones like PolitiFact and Snopes.
Fact Check Websites for Getting Political Facts:
“FactCheck.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters
that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.
They monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political
players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news
releases. Their goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and
scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.”
“PolitiFact is run by the Tampa Bay Times. PolitiFact is an independent
fact-checking website that aims to help people find "truth in politics" by
monitoring statements from U.S. politician and advocacy groups. PolitiFact
won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its coverage of the 2008 Presidential
“OpenSecrets.org is your nonpartisan guide to money’s influence on U.S.
elections and public policy. Whether you’re a voter, journalist, activist,
student or interested citizen, use this free site to shine light on the
government. Count cash and make change.”
“Media Matters is a Liberal swaying fact check source. According to their
website, they are "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing,
and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. Media." They
define "Conservative misinformation" as "news or commentary that is not
accurate, reliable, or credible that forwards the conservative agenda."”
“News Busters is a Conservative swaying fact check source. It is a project
of the Media Research Center, which labels itself as an "American Media
Watchdog." According to their website, they aim to "expose and combat
the Liberal Media bias."”
Project Vote Smart
“Project Vote Smart, also called Vote Smart, is a non-profit, non-partisan
research organization that collects and distributes information on
candidates for public office in the United States. It covers candidates and
elected officials in six basic areas: background information, issue positions
(via the Political Courage Test), voting records, campaign finances,
interest group ratings, and speeches and public statements.”
Washington Post Fact Checker
“The Washington Post Fact Checker's purpose "is to “truth squad” the
statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be
they national, international or local." They "seek to explain difficult issues,
provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various
“code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or
shade the truth."”
ABC News Fact Check
“ABC Fact Check determines the accuracy of claims by politicians, public
figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in the public debate. All
verdicts fall into three color-based categories: In The Red, In The Green or
In Between - red being a negative ruling, and green being a positive.”
“Smart Voter provides voters with comprehensive nonpartisan information
about the contests on their ballot in an easy-to-use presentation. Smart
Voter also provides a means for candidates to publish information about
themselves and their candidacy directly to voters. This service is made
possible through partnerships with the League of Women Voters and
election officials of various states and local communities around the U.S.”
Lastly we need to consider some of the rumors that are just too crazy to be true.
Then again, you can fool some of the people, some of the time.
Fact Check Websites for Religion, Email Scams and Hoaxes:
Top 11 sites to debunk urban legends
2. About Urban Legends
3. Break The Chain
9. Trend Micro
10. Virus Busters
So, there you have it, the makings of a short 20-30 minute classroom session
and handout on the ways to test what you hear and see – socially, on the web, in
print, or on TV.
Librarians are, by definition and values, non-partisan. That said, we are no
unbiased. We are biased towards quality and fact-based, research based,
Be careful out there!
Stephen Abram, MLS is managing principal of Lighthouse Consulting Inc. He
has held executive roles in information and software vendors as well as
management roles in libraries. He is a Past President of SLA, the Ontario Library
Association and the Canadian Library Association. He is an international
speaker, author of ALA Edition’s Out Front with Stephen Abram and Stephen’s
Lighthouse Blog. Stephen would love to hear from you at