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Countering Misinformation/Disinformation in Your Community

March 12, 2022

As I imagine many of you do, I spend time thinking and reading about the ways in which misinformation and disinformation affect our society. For those unfamiliar with the distinction between the two terms, misinformation is simply false information, which may or may not have been intended to mislead; disinformation is false information which has been disseminated with the explicit intent to mislead readers. (The Debunking Handbook, mentioned in a previous It’s Academic! post, and dictionary.com have further discussion of the two terms.) As both the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election show, mis/disinformation have serious real-world consequences.

Given the scope of the problem and my professional zeal for providing correct information, I’m always seeking ways to help address it beyond my class instruction sessions. Last summer, an opportunity to do so appeared when the Pitt Disinformation Lab (PDL) was created. Since the PDL was founded in part by a Political Science professor and I’m the Political Science liaison, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in the PDL since the beginning. Like many other university centers and initiatives, the PDL is studying and countering mis/disinformation on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. What makes the PDL novel, though, is our hyper-local focus on Western Pennsylvania and our face-to-face education of, and dialogue with, Pittsburgh community members. We’re seeking to understand residents’ entire information environment, both online and offline, to build civic resilience to disinformation.  

I’m a member of a PDL subgroup that is focused on the community resilience efforts. The idea is to partner with existing community groups and leaders to strengthen local information ecosystems and develop knowledge and tools to fight disinformation. Currently, we’re having virtual discussions with members of Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood over a period of seven weeks about disinformation and their local knowledge ecosystems. Our conversations have ranged from examination of local “news deserts” to examining the history of Black-owned media in our region. The next session, with two of our university librarians, will explore creating grassroots community narratives, particularly against narratives of neighborhoods that often focus on, as our participants put it, “only the negative.” These sessions will help inform our future partnerships, possibly including local public libraries.

Cathedral of Learning Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning (CC BY-SA 2.0), courtesy of Flickr user crazypaco

My participation in the PDL has enabled me to broaden the library’s ties with the university and has enabled me to work with faculty members outside of my liaison areas. It’s been enlightening to learn how other disciplines understand the relevant issues and see how they fight mis/disinformation. However, I’ve also deepened existing relationships, particularly with the PDL co-lead, who is a History faculty member I’ve worked with for years in my role as a History liaison. Being a PDL member has enabled me to see a side of her work and interests that I perhaps would never have seen in my day-to-day liaison duties.

While your university may not have the capacity to create a large research center to study and address false information, there may be ways to do similar work on your campus. For instance, partner with faculty members in their disinformation research and education. If there are community groups or public libraries you’re in contact with, see if they’d be willing to host workshops or discussions. Our professional understanding of information ecosystems means we have a lot to contribute to the fight against mis/disinformation.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Christopher Lemery permalink
    March 16, 2022 7:25 pm

    There’s a related College & Research Libraries article just published: Faculty Perspectives on Mis- and Disinformation across Disciplines https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/25344

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