Post by Sam Popowich
The phenomenon of “fake news” has been in the public eye since the US election came to a head in November of last year. Interestingly, the Google ngram viewer (which only goes up to 2008) shows some interesting spikes in the usage of the term “fake news.”
The biggest spike comes just before 1940 before becoming fairly stable until it rises again in the late 1990s. The spike in or around 1939 ought to alert us to something very important. While some people have been trying to get “fake news” characterized unambiguously as “lies”, it’s important to remember that because news is political, “fake news” has a political objective. We lie for many reasons; when we lie for political reasons, we call it propaganda.
In her essay “On the Abolition of Political Parties” of 1943, Simone Weil wrote:
Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade. Hitler saw very clearly that the aim of propaganda must always be to enslave minds.
The insidious thing about fake news is not simply that it lies, but that it’s purpose – like all propaganda - is to enslave minds.
The question then becomes not only how do we recognize fake news, but how do we train minds so they stand a chance of resisting this enslavement.
Whenever people have asked me for tips on how to learn to code, one strategy I always mention is this: whenever I have a task to do, no matter how small, even if it would be faster to do by hand, I write a program for it. Take for example, something trivial, like sorting a short list of publication names. Even a list of 50 names would take something on the order of 5 minutes to reorder (less if you already have them in a spreadsheet application like Excel).
The important thing here is not only to achieve the result, it is to practice programming.
If you want to learn to code, it is better to take the opportunity (and the extra time) to write more code. The more you write code, and the more frequently you write code, the faster you’ll learn. Programming quickly evolves from being something you are learning to a practice.
Over the Christmas break I spent a lot of time with my nephews, one of whom is five years old and just learning to read. Whenever he found an opportunity, no matter how trivial, he would read the words on something: a bottle of juice, the cover of a book, a street sign. He could have asked what the words were, which would be “more efficient”, but he’s trying to learn how to read.
Just as with programming, reading will eventually stop being something he’s learning and start being a practice.
In his 1978 work The Act of Reading, Wolfgang Iser formulated a theory of reading that took account of the active participation of the reader. For Iser, text and reader meet and, through an active process of meaning-construction, the reader realizes the text they are reading.
Central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its recipient. (…) The text itself simply offers “schematized aspects” through which the subject matter of the work can be produced, while the actual production takes place through an act of concretization. 
A text is only a symbolic structure; it is not, cannot be, and is not intended to be, a full and complete expression of reality. Instead, the reader is called upon to fill in the gaps in the texts, creating significance guided by, but not limited to, the structure of the text. It is for this reason that difficult, allusive (and illusive) reading is more and more important in an age not only of fully-immersive entertainment, but of texts which attempt more and more to reduce gaps necessary for the active participation of a reader.
“The reader… can never learn from the text how accurate or inaccurate are his views of it. (…) It is the very lack of ascertainability and defined intention that brings about the text-reader interaction. 
But news – journalism – does have a defined intention. Its defined intention is to communicate fact, and it is precisely this defined intention that short-circuits the text-reader interaction and makes the news such an efficient vehicle for propaganda.
The short, clear sentences prized by journalists, for example, have the effect of reducing barriers to comprehension. But this smoothness makes journalism ripe for abuse. The barrier-free writing prized by the news is taken as authoritative because it seems anti-elite, more democratic, and because it leaves no space for the active participation of the reader. The reader becomes merely a passive sponge for whatever “facts” (alternative or otherwise) the journalist is putting forward. The form of journalism can become a tool for slipping information past an under-exercised consciousness.
This is not to suggest that journalism should erect barriers to comprehension; that would still place responsibility for critical understanding with the writer. What we need is to train readers on a wide variety of different modes of writing, both the plain and unadorned (popular fiction, newspaper articles) and the difficult and allusive (poetry, scholarly material, “difficult” fiction).
Only by wide and repeated exposure to different kinds of texts can a reader exercise the reading faculty to the extent required to navigate propaganda of all kinds and fake news in particular.
The widespread dissemination of simplified, barrier-free texts did not, of course, happen in a vacuum. In Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, the ruling class must find ways to transmit its ideas and values to all sections of society, in order to ensure “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life” by the ruling class itself. Under the guise of democratization, simplified writing became a positive and desirable, even though it led to the weakening of critical reading skills.
The teaching of reading, on the other hand, focused on “practical” and “efficient” functions of reading. This is reading as befits a capitalist society which holds only the practical (that is profit-increasing) as valuable – reading newspapers, reading emails, etc. More imaginative or difficult forms of reading are at best played-down (reading becomes a hobby) at worst actively denigrated or suppressed.
Both schools and libraries have been part of this dynamic. The move to ebooks makes intensive, sustained, cover-to-cover reading almost impossible; the rise of off-site “dark” storage makes serendipitous browsing completely impossible. Both ebooks and dark storage are allowing print collections to be reduced and, eventually, eliminated. The article has taken over from the monograph. Reading programs for children and readers’ advisory programs are maintained in public libraries, but they tend to follow the bourgeois “the customer is always right” model rather than attempting to awaken and exercise the faculty of critical reading.
Since the fake news and “alternative facts” stories broke, I’ve seen checklists of how to recognize fake news . A checklist seems to me to fit squarely into the bourgeois, empirical/positivist model of understanding the world: there is a list of rules or criteria to measure the world against.
But the world, even as represented by journalism, is much more complicated than that.
A checklist is not going to help to recognize or resist fake news, because applying a checklist is the height of passivity.
All that is going to help recognize and resist fake news is the practice that humanity has used for generations to help understand, model, and navigate the messy, complicated world that we live in: wide, extensive, intensive, difficult reading.
It is often argued that “difficult” texts are elitist, that simplified texts with no barriers to comprehension are therefore more democratic. I would argue that since the active engagement with difficult texts creates citizens more able to think critically and be active participants in society (as in their reading), the reading of “difficult” texts is more democratic, less elitist than the position that maintains that citizens are too stupid to read anything more than what journalists and governments deign to make available to them. Simplified texts are used to facilitate the dissemination and absorption of propaganda (“fake news”). Difficult texts require the active participation of the reader. Describing how language can become easily-digestible through over-familiarity, Jameson writes that
Style resembles the Red Queen, developing ever more complicated mechanisms in order to sustain the power to say the same thing; and in the commercial universe of late capitalism the serious writer is obliged to reawaken the reader’s numbed sense of the concrete through the administration of linguistic shocks, by restructuring the overfamiliar. 
Journalistic texts rely on the overfamiliar, indeed it is a hallmark of their style. This is not to say, however, that simplified texts don’t have their place: Twitter, for example, has been used to manage and organize protests in various countries. But this has to be a complement, not an alternative, to the practice of sustained, intensive reading with active work on the part of the reader. Promoting this practice – not checklists and LibGuides – is how librarians should be addressing the phenomena of fake news.
In a recent Code4Lib Journal editorial, Ruth Kitchin Tillman issues a call for librarians to start “assessing how well we live up to the fundamental principles of our profession”. She describes how privacy, vendor relationships, partnerships, algorithms, as well as the “way we treat each other” must all be constantly scrutinized in order to hold ourselves to account, not only for the good, but for the evil that we, as a profession, might do (unwittingly or not).
I think that we are currently witnessing a rebirth of explicitly political librarianship, which can only be a good thing. This means we can’t let our users drift in a morass of LibGuides and pathfinders. We have to start promoting the practices, behaviours and, yes, values that we think are important, whether or not these fall under the traditional purview of library work. In the case of fake news, I think librarians need to get back in the game of promoting real literacy – not just the literacy of street signs, menus, and newspapers, but deep, intensive literacy, in order to help our coworkers and users resist the political movements which are currently sweeping over us. Tillman writes that the future of the information professions is “on us, whether we choose to passively accept a status quo others build or to act and grow and develop ourselves and our workplaces.”
In order to separate propaganda from the truth, readers must be exposed to a wide variety of styles and rhetorical modes. In order to identify manipulation and prevarication, readers have to be able to recognize them and engage with them actively, rather than merely passively accepting them. We must read things we disagree with, even things we find repugnant, in order to see the similarities between, say, Mein Kampf, and the propagandistic “news” of a Breitbart or a Fox. Except for Ayn Rand. Life’s too short to read Ayn Rand.
 Weil, Simone. On the Abolition of All Political Parties, New York: NYRB Classics, 2013: 16.
 Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978: 20-21.
 Ibid, 166.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: International Publishers, 1971, 12.
 Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971: 21.
 Kitchin Tillman, Ruth. “Editorial”, Code4Lib Journal, Issue 35 (2017-01-30). Available at http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/12232
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