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Scholarly Communications

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How much should libraries retain of what's found to be fake news? (opinion)

I hate fake news. And that’s why I believe I have to preserve it.

Fake news is smoke without fire. Like you, I do not need to be told that the deliberate distribution of misinformation existed long before anybody called it “fake news.” But the agency, content and impact of this misinformation has changed. Thanks to the internet, that house of mirrors, malicious individuals and organizations are able to spread fake news much more easily than before. It travels much farther, much faster. It can deal with almost any topic. It can sway voters.

Is fake news any concern of librarians like myself? Instead of just believing everything I read, I recently decided to go online and explore the phenomenon. It is not hard to find an online list of the deleted accounts that Twitter recently reported to Congress. It is also quite easy to find statements by the CEOs of Facebook and Google accepting responsibility for accidentally disseminating Russian propaganda during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They promise not to let this happen again.

So I ask myself: Who will have access to these deleted accounts in the future, or to the websites to which the accounts refer, or to any of the other sources for fake news? When historians seek to understand the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where will they turn for information about the deleted accounts and websites that may have influenced its outcome?

No doubt the kind of self-censorship practiced by Twitter, Facebook and Google is long overdue. As a civilian, I applaud the resolve of our dominant internet giants to locate and suppress the trolls and bots that have attacked our democratic right to accurate information.

But as a librarian it leaves me queasy. Perhaps we all feel like criticizing those wealthy farmers for shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. But I am even more concerned that vital evidence gets destroyed when the farmers are allowed to shut their own barn doors.

The problem, of course, is that fake news is consciously designed to be ephemeral, hard to spot and even harder to capture. Thousands of items are produced every day and launched to either live off our dopamine for a while or die painlessly. In the meantime, librarians are trying to keep up with an overabundance of more authoritative resources. It is not surprising, therefore, that they have little time for fake news beyond continuing the good work of educating people how to distinguish it from the real stuff. Many academic libraries are revising their information literacy instruction to take account of the phenomenon. That’s good, but I think Americans should expect more.

Libraries exist in order to preserve information and make it available. Tools -- programs -- are available for capturing and preserving websites. Probably the best known is Archive-It, a subscription web-archiving service from the nonprofit Internet Archive.

Nevertheless, applying these tools to fake news sites won’t be easy, since naturally they do not advertise themselves as such. How will librarians know what to capture, and when? How will they provide access without perpetuating the harm fake news causes?

I believe the fake news phenomenon is here to stay and that its influence is a legitimate subject for research. If you agree with me, you might also agree that libraries are the best organizations to work through the complications regarding its preservation and access. Academic librarians in the United States have a particular responsibility as well as expertise to do this. Readers have every right to expect that the primary resources for the academic study of an issue so fundamental to democracy will be available to themselves and to future generations.

If fake news is smoke without fire, we surely need to find better ways to capture the smoke.

Gerald R. Beasley is the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University.

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