The Future Of News and How To Stop It

I presented this paper at the Bobcatsss 2020 Conference in Paris, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Recently I had occasion to revisit the topic of journalism, disinformation, and library science. This article seems more relevant that ever, and I stand by the crazy ideas presented herein.

Abstract

Today we have an abundance of information resources undreamed of in past centuries, but are exposed via the Internet to more disinformation than any previous generation. Digital media technologies are being massively leveraged to spread propagandistic messages designed to undermine trust in all forms of information, and to stimulate strongly affective responses and an entrenchment of political, cultural, and social divisions. The critical demands of the digital age have outpaced development of a corresponding information literacy. Meanwhile journalists are accused by authoritarian leaders of being “enemies of the people” while facing layoffs from newsrooms no longer supported by a sustainable business model. Short of reinvention, professional journalism will be increasingly endangered and the relevance of news organizations will continue to decline. In this paper I propose a new collaborative model for news production and curation combining the expertise of librarians, journalists, educators, and technologists, with the objectives of addressing today’s information literacy deficit, bolstering the credibility and verifiability of news, and restoring reasoned deliberation in the public sphere.

Keywords: Internet; disinformation; fake news; information literacy; journalism; library science; education; public sphere

Introduction

The definition of ”information literacy” remains contested in the academic realm. This is not surprising since the definition of “information” is even more contested, as is the word “literacy.” Most common definitions of literacy cite the ability to read and write text [1]. But does an informational object containing text consist only of information? Or does it often consist of small bits of information embedded in a large volume of noise?

Take the example of Fake News. I don’t like the term “fake news” because it is especially fake. Fake news is a charge most frequently deployed by those who seek to deny and discredit real news. Calling something Orwellian may be an overused trope, but the term is justified in the case of “fake news.” For this reason, when discussing falsehoods and deception in our media systems, I prefer the term disinformation .

There are of course many other terms for the many varieties of deceptive or misleading messages: misinformation, malinformation, made-up news, imposter content, false context, propaganda, etc. At the risk of imprecision, in this paper I lump them all in a general category of disinformation.

We may never fully resolve the definition of information once and for all, but for the sake of argument I’ll refer to it as a signal of reality perceived through a media object that may also contain a great deal of noise. On the Internet, millions of text-literate people are misperceiving signals of reality, and being misled by massive amounts of disinformational noise, much of which is designed to deceive. It seems that text literacy is inadequate to the task of sorting truth from deception and making informed decisions as citizens in the age of the Internet. What we really need is a more expansive Information Literacy, which involves the ability to not only perceive a signal, but also to think critically about it.

The Association of College and Research Libraries Framework on Information Literacy for Higher Education articulates fundamental ideas about critical skills, knowledge practices, and dispositions needed for learners and curriculum development. The Framework was written for the present time, as digital technologies and the internet are increasingly dominant features of our information infrastructures. It defines information literacy as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning” [2]. John Buschman calls this “critical reflexivity,” and argues that text literacy, media literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy and a host of other adjectives of literacy are categories of what we now call information literacy, where we apply critical reflexivity to text, media, digital, and all other sources of information and noise [3]

Conceiving of literacy this way may help develop a strategy for dealing with our current disinformation disorders. In this paper I argue that the ideas in the Framework can provide a conceptual map to reinvent the work of journalists and news organizations, in collaboration with librarians, educators, and technologists, and a new model of news production that embodies and enacts the knowledge practices and dispositions of information literacy.

A Detour à la Latour

We might gain some insight into today’s digital information disorders by considering the history and impact of earlier innovations such as printed text. Much has been claimed about the influence of the printing press on the expansion of literacy. Clearly the press led to an expansion of text literacy among previously “illiterate” populations. It is also clear that text literacy was a feature of human cultures at least a millennium before print [4].

In his article Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Hands and Eyes, Bruno Latour examines the the sixteenth century emergence of modern scientific culture in Europe. Latour argues that the effects of the rapid rise of science and technology “are so enormous that it seems absurd not to look for enormous causes.” But he rejects “grand dichotomy” narratives that posit a sharp divide between pre scientific and scientific cultures, theories of rapid evolution of the human brain, and claims that the rise of science culture was part of some deterministic historical process. He suggests that an Occam’s Razor test might point to the role of the printing press in facilitating “simple modifications in the way in which groups of people argue with one another using paper, signs, prints and diagrams” [5].

Scientists of the period were engaged in the “transformation of rats and chemicals into paper,” inscribed in forms that could be “combinable, superimposable, and . . . integrated as figures in the text of articles people were writing.” Writing and imaging in the form of print allowed authors to access a much broader range of research and scholarly claims. The new thing in the sixteenth century, Latour says, was not science:

“Before the advent of print every possible intellectual feat had been achieved – organized scepticism, scientific method, refutation, data collection, theory making – everything had been tried, and in all disciplines: geography, cosmology, medicine, dynamics, politics, economics and so on. But each achievement stayed local and temporary just because there was no way to move their results elsewhere” [5].

With the printing press came a new feature of written information: mobility. Latour uses the term immutable mobiles: information objects which have the properties of “being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with one another.” Printing allowed scientists and scholars to publish and broadly distribute their research, and to argue for their interpretations of evidence and theory. Others could read published materials and respond with their counter-arguments, evidence, and theory. These encounters facilitated exchange of information between authors, and a “proof race” that contributed to refinement of ideas and rapid progress in science and technology [5].

Elizabeth Eisenstein notes the importance of the “more abundantly stocked bookshelves” of sixteenth century in enabling comparison of different texts:

Contradictions became more visible, divergent traditions more difficult
to reconcile . . . not only was confidence in old theories weakened, but an enriched reading matter also encouraged the development of new intellectual combinations and permutations [6].

Jack Goody and Ian Watt argue that the persistence of text encouraged new forms of skepticism:

Literate societies . . . are faced with permanently recorded versions of the past and its beliefs; and because the past is thus set apart from the present, historical enquiry becomes possible. This in turn encourages scepticism; and scepticism, not only about the legendary past, but about received ideas about the universe as a whole. From here the next step is to see how to build up and to test alternative explanations: and out of this there arose the kind of logical, specialized, and cumulative intellectual tradition [7].

Buschman identifies this “higher-order thinking in information processing” as the “cognitive tools developed by literacy,” such as the distancing of subject from object, awareness of context, and comparison of sources and claims. He invokes the centrality of “intertextuality” where information is examined critically regardless of form, including the “evaluation of conflicting evidence, comparison, contrasts, and argumentation.” His claim is that all forms of literacy rely on a critical and reflective stance that is central to information literacy [3].

This view of information literacy has direct bearing on our interpretations of sixteenth century European science culture. Printed materials were becoming abundant, immutable, and mobile. The available materials included text, illustrations, diagrams, dictionaries, charts, maps, and early representations of what we now call data. In Latour’s framing, transformations of rats and chemicals into paper, published as print and shared broadly, became objects of critical evaluation in the work of science and other intellectual pursuits. The printing press made this possible as “the old texts are spread everywhere and can be gathered more cheaply in one place,” he writes. “But then the contradiction between them at last becomes visible in the most literal sense” [5].

In other words, the emergence of modern scientific culture was not the result of some teleological process or new kind of brain, but the exposure of old brains to a wider range of immutable and mobile information, which facilitated the development of more critical and reflective knowledge practices and dispositions we now call information literacy.

From Immutable Mobiles to Hypermutable Cybermobiles

But how does the sixteenth century world of print compare with the 21st century digital information environment? We have an abundance of information resources undreamed of in past centuries. The global text literacy rate has been increasing by five percent per year since 1960, and reached 86 percent in 2015 [8]. But the world has grown vastly more complex due to technology, global migration, urbanization, climate change, and seemingly entrenched political, economic, and social divisions.

The Internet makes information vastly more mobile than print. Yet because of the ephemeral nature of digital formats, much of our information is now more fragile than the first artifacts of writing in 3500 BC. Through the Internet, we are exposed to more disinformation and ill-formed arguments, evidence, and claims than any previous generation. Everything is mobile, but nothing is immutable. And the actors waging disinformation campaigns are flooding our communication channels with messages designed to deceive, confuse, and convince global populations that the work of professional news organizations cannot be trusted.

Digital information is not only mutable and hyper mobile, it is easily transformed into disinformation. There is nothing new about political actors using propagandistic techniques to manipulate perceptions and opinions. What is new are digital media technologies that drastically alter how people engage with, shape, and share information in public and private domains. In this environment the origins of disinformation can easily be obfuscated. Social media networks are fertile ground for “tactics encouraging and enabling target audiences to not just spread, but also to create and adapt propaganda messages,” providing “a more effective means of mass persuasion given that people tend to find recommendations from their personal social network more credible than others” [9].

The effect of this kind of “participatory propaganda” in digital form is fundamentally different from the intellectual impact of Latour’s immutable mobiles in the sixteenth century:

  • Disinformation can dominate digital information environments through sheer volume of messages delivered by both real people and automated accounts, sowing confusion about the line between authentic and fake information and sources.
  • A propagandist can use a wealth of demographic and personal data to target individuals with provocative content designed to elicit affective responses, such as fear or anger.
  • Propagandistic messages are designed to exploit political and social divisions, and to reinforce existing polarization and distrust.
  • Digital analytics allow propagandists to monitor the spread of their messages and adapt messaging and distribution strategies in near real-time.
  • Meme factories funded by political campaigns, authoritarian governments, and other bad-faith actors spread visually engaging allegations of conspiracies and corruption by political opponents and social movements. Real images are often posted out of context to lend authenticity to false narratives [9].
  • Sensationalistic allegations draw the attention of jouralists who then report on and amplify them further. News organizations increasingly report on outrageous claims posted on social media. Even fact checking can reinforce the impact of disinformation by repeating it, regardless of context [10].
  • Imposter content using logos of major news organizations peddles counterfeit news (i.e. actual fake news) [11].
  • The algorithms of social media feeds and search engines are “gamed” to boost deceptive messages. Multiple fake news websites link back and forth to each other, raising search ranking for false stories about real events while crowding out authentic information [9].
  • Bots automatically post massive amounts of disinformation and manipulate search and feed algorithms. Botnets are sponsored by authoritarian governments, political campaigns, and their consultants, or sold for profit by commercial enterprises using “sock puppet” accounts and hacked profiles on social media [12].
  • Hackers disrupt official communications, vandalize websites, and steal information for use in political attacks and disinformation campaigns [9].
  • Trolls inflame conversations on news websites and social media to trigger outrage and increase polarization [9].
  • News media organizations operate in an information space crowded with sensational content. The competition to break through the audience’s “attention deficit” leads to editorial decisions and headlines designed to attract likes, clicks, and shares, which further blur impressions of what is fake or authentic.
  • “Deep fakes” use machine learning and huge data sets to make convincing forgeries of people saying or doing things they never did, using images, audio, and video [13].

These and other disinformation techniques take advantage of the mental shortcuts we use to make sense of the world, especially when overstimulated by a constant flow of information from digital platforms and devices. Under stress we often fall back on heuristics to relate new information to things we already believe, reinforcing existing views instead of critically examining them.

In short, the impact of digital information is fundamentally different from the sixteenth century impact of print. We have reinvented our information environment, and the cognitive demands of the digital age have outpaced the development of a corresponding information literacy.

The rules and methods of professional journalism were developed for the 20th century,
but to help citizens make sense of digital information technologies and their impact on the world, we need to reinvent news for the 21st.

Disinformation Inoculation

As an instructor in journalism and digital media, I’ve noticed that most students come into my classes knowing almost nothing about the underlying technologies of the digital age. They have been using digital tools, the Internet, and social media without even thinking about where they came from or how they work. My lesson plans now include the history of media, and how digital technology and the Internet work. These lessons consistently improve my students’ learning outcomes and motivation. I believe this approach also better prepares students to be critically reflexive consumers, creators, and critics of media and technology.

The same approach could be applied to news and journalism. Research by Michelle Amazeen and Erik Bucy shows that people can more easily identify fabricated news when they have a working knowledge of how the news media and journalists do their work [14]. People with “procedural news knowledge” are inclined to use a wider range of news sources, and are more perceptive of credibility cues [15]. A 2018 Pew survey found that when people learn how news is made, they are both more aware of its imperfections and limitations, and are less likely to trust news from social media and search engines. They are also less inclined to share suspect content, and more inclined to participate in civic engagement and democratic processes [16].

This research suggests that news organizations could build news fluency and trust by explicitly describing their editorial process to audiences, and educating the public about how they operate. But given the extent of the world’s information disorder, news organizations could use some allies from other information professions, and a new model for creating news that incorporates the knowledge practices of information literacy.

An InfoLit Model of News

Libraries are among the most trusted institutions in public life. Libraries in democratic societies can provide a space for rational discourse and enacting Jürgen Habamas’s conception of the public sphere [17]. They provide a broad range of resources people can use to verify or refute claims of fact and authority. They welcome underserved citizens and make information and education more universally accessible [18]. Public libraries are spaces where people can have conversations with information and with each other, especially where policies and programs actively promote the library as a center for exploration and public discourse. It would make great sense for libraries to prioritize collaboration with other institutions who are likewise committed to the vitality of the public sphere.

Librarians are also involved in every level of education as experts on information resources, multiplicity, and authority. They help define educational outcomes, inform curriculum and resource development, and assist in planning for technology, pedagogy, and assessment. They collaborate with learners, educators, and administrators to build information literacy into instruction at all levels.

So let’s invite librarians into the newsroom. Not simply as data managers and archivists, but as experts on source authority, research as inquiry, and searching as strategic exploration [2]. In collaboration with librarians, news organizations could address information literacy at a strategic level. Here are a few ways in which librarians could help improve journalism:

  • Institute better citation practices. News stories, especially investigative reports, could include a list of references with inline citations. This isn’t always possible, for example when a report is based on statements from “officials familiar with the matter.” But from an audience perspective, basing a story on unnamed sources is already problematic. Whenever possible, journalists should identify their sources so as to demonstrate transparency, and to allow for independent verification. There’s plenty of room for citations on a web page.
  • Serve the newsroom as a reference desk. Reference librarians are experts in identifying the most relevant queries, and guiding people to the most useful resources.
  • Suggest additional information resources to provide context for a given story, and encourage reporters to break out of traditional news framing and habitual story tropes.
  • Perform data services for the newsroom. Data journalism is of growing importance, but most reporters don’t have time to become data experts, perform statistical and text analysis, or design data presentations and user interfaces. Reporters who want to learn these skills could have access to a subject matter expert in the newsroom.
  • Find and organize records-based data, such as government and industry documents, and file and follow up on FOIA requests on behalf of reporters.
  • Catalog, organize, curate, and preserve the work products of the newsroom. Managing digital information and media is difficult and time consuming, as evidenced by the digital mess in every newsroom I have ever encountered.
  • Provide expertise on metadata standards and best practices for information organization and retrieval.
  • Build an actual library of information resources needed by the newsroom. Document the provenance of information to help assure its validity and relevance to news stories.
  • Serve as a trusted agent and ambassador to the newsroom’s audience and community, and contribute to building community engagement and public trust.

These are just a few ideas for integrating library science in the newsroom. Librarians and journalists have similar objectives in serving the public interest, but they look at information through different lenses. Librarians can provide journalists with training on research strategies using the knowledge practices and dispositions of information literacy. Journalists can help librarians understand reporting and digital media production processes. The application of both lenses to news reporting would lead to deeper and more credible journalism.

Building a Pedagogy of News

As journalists we are engaged in work that performs important functions of education, but in general we’re practicing what Paulo Freire calls the “banking model” of education [19]. We gather and package information, then deposit it in people’s brains. Today we’re struggling just to reach audiences, hoping to deposit an engaging and meaningful signal through the noise.

Educators have expertise in education theory and pedagogical strategies. They develop lesson plans with specific learning outcomes. They recognize different learning styles, and understand instructional design. The best teachers I know understand something most journalists generally don’t think about: that knowledge is actively constructed by learners, not passively ingested by empty vessels. The teacher’s emphasis is on the learning processes of students, not the material being taught [20]. Teachers who have experience working with journalists would be better able to teach students how to critically consume news. But educators could also play an innovative role in the newsroom. Here are a few ways educators could help improve journalism:

  • Work with journalists to develop a “pedagogy of news.” Journalists are already engaged in education in the broadest sense. But journalists don’t generally regard themselves as teachers, and so don’t avail themselves of educational theory and instructional design.
  • Work with editorial staff to define specific learning outcomes for news stories. Learning objectives could be clearly articulated, and the reporting, writing, production, and distribution of news content could be based on those objectives.
  • Build formative assessment into the products of news. There are probably many ways to test and reinforce audience news knowledge, such as gamification of topics like climate science, election procedures, law, health and medicine, and politics.
  • Develop summative assessment methods for the impact of news on learning outcomes, to address the question every good journalists asks: “Does my work make a difference?”
  • Encourage journalists to visualize their audience as learners, who have all the characteristics that challenge teachers: different cultural backgrounds, perceptual abilities, cognitive skills, learning styles, prior knowledge and misconceptions, and schema through which they interpret new information. This would help journalists transition from a content-centered to an audience-centered approach to news. It would also provide a theoretical and practical approach to what much of the news world calls “community engagement.”
  • Help journalists understand news as a part of life-long learning, and to see themselves as not just reporting the news, but educating people on the subjects of news.
  • Transform newsroom work products into “curricular” materials that could guide news audiences to a deeper understanding of a story subject from beginning to end. The material could be presented in a variety of forms to best match the audience, the nature of the information, and the learning objectives of the reporting.
  • News as curricular materials could be repurposed in the classroom, bridging gaps between current events and school lesson plans on politics, history, economics, health, communications, science, and other subjects addressed in news reporting. Educators in the newsroom could serve as a pipeline for connecting news with educational materials used in schools at all levels.

Technology won’t save us but we need it anyway

A growing number of technology developers are also fed up with disinformation disorder and the use of their labor to surveil people and exploit their personal data for corporate profit. Many would collaborate with journalists and other information professionals to restore credibility, privacy, and trust in our information systems. Newsrooms need digital tools and technologies that can help serve the public interest. Developers are already creating open source solutions for news reporting, publishing, data analysis and visualization, etc., and since newsrooms share the problems they could share the solutions. For example, the NPR Visuals Team has built a number of open source tools for NPR news, and has made them freely available on GitHub [21]. Developers working in a news environment alongside a team of journalists, librarians, and educators are likely to perceive technology problems in new ways, and provide new ideas for challenges like story design, digital media workflow, archiving, and metadata.

Toward a News Model for the 21st Century

The news model of the 20th century positioned journalists as impartial arbiters of facts, reported with objectivity and fairness for the purpose of informing people on important issues of the day. The assumption was that when people receive the facts, they would compare them with other facts to arrive at a better understanding of truth. Informed by a true picture of reality, citizens could constructively debate and deliberate with other citizens, leading to civic health and functional democracy. Societal progress and a more affluent and humane future would follow. This is the critical thinking model described by Latour, and we can see it in the impact of print on scientific innovation in the sixteenth century.

But the Internet and digital media have disrupted Latour’s model by flooding our information spaces with strategic disinformation sponsored by actors who seek control and power, not civic health and democracy. Today’s digital information is both mutable and hypermobile, and broadly distributed on social media platforms designed not to inform, but to generate “engagement” and highly affective responses. In a world polarized by “alternative facts” and technology-driven echo chambers, constructive deliberation by informed citizens is becoming increasingly rare. 21st century news organizations must address this disruption by accounting for the challenges people now face in sorting signals of truth from mountains of disinformational noise.

It’s easy to imagine objections to reinventing news. The ideas presented in this paper may seem too difficult or too costly to implement. It’s also easy to predict that without reinvention, news organizations will continue to lose audiences and revenue, lay off reporters and editors, and fail to address the information challenges of the 21st century [22]. Trust in news media is declining worldwide [23]. This parallels a decline of trust in other institutions, including governments and the democratic process [24].

I am not suggesting that changing the 20th century model of news would be easy; I’m suggesting that it’s important enough to try.

Conclusion

Once upon a time as a technologist, I imagined that the Internet would empower people who want to create a more socially just and democratic world for all. It turns out the Internet also empowers people who want to create a world of disruption for their own benefit. As a journalist I’ve been watching the growth of disinformation on social media networks and its corrosion of trust. As a researcher and teacher, I study the particulars of that disruption and corrosion. It’s clear to me that those of us concerned with truth, democracy, and social justice share a very difficult challenge. Our global disinformation disorder is growing more disruptive each year, and we have yet to develop a corresponding approach to information literacy.

A deficit of information literacy isn’t our only problem. In this paper I haven’t addressed the corruptive influence of the advertising model on news and social media networks, the practice of “both sides” journalism that uncritically positions opposing political arguments as equally valid [25], the rise of hyperpartisan media organizations that play to the biases of hyperpartisan audiences [26], or the strategic use of information warfare by nations in pursuit of geopolitical interests [27, 28]. It can also be credibly argued that the Internet is now owned by Big Tech, and that it’s too late for anything to displace, reform, or regulate Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Amazon. These are important topics for other papers, but transforming monopolistic capitalism or the imperial ambitions of authoritarian governments is a longer-term project.

Instead I’m suggesting something that is within reach: In collaboration with journalists, librarians, teachers, and technologists we can build a new model for news that has a better chance to communicate a signal worthy of trust through the noise of fake news.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard professor of law and co- founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, for allowing me to borrow from the title of his very important book The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It. I apologize in advance of him learning about it. During my time in public radio, I had an opportunity to work with great journalists who helped me understand the importance of listening. At WILL-AM in Urbana, Illinois, David Inge showed me the power of radio to create community, and to connect the local with the global. At the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, I gained a deeper appreciation for the value of collaborating with people from all walks of life, colors, cultures, nationalities, gender identities, religious traditions, social and economic statuses, and political views. Martin Wolske encouraged new ways of thinking about technology and sociotechnical design, and seems to have installed some unorthodox (and effective) methods in my teaching. Bonnie Mak introduced me to the study of information history, which has become a lens through which I am now researching contemporary information systems and design. Terry Weech grounded me in the work of librarians, and got me thinking about the relevance of information literacy to creators and consumers of news, and the natural fit between journalists and librarians. Both professions are concerned with the role of information in solving problems, and the possibility of democracy and social justice. Clearly we have some work to do.

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