Information behavior during the “Infodemic” – Ideas for academic librarians

This COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an information crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the society not only needs to fight the pandemic, but also the “infodemic,” which it defined as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it“. This “infodemic” could add another layer of challenge as college students strive to navigate the turbulent time.

College students are likely to fall prey to the spiraling misinformation during the infodemic. Standford researcher Sam Wineburg and his team have repeatedly found that college students were not well-equipped with the ability to critically evaluate online information, and they struggled to effectively evaluate online claims, sources, and evidence. Their research indicated that college students could be deceived by easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names, and they tend to read a webpage vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability. In the meantime, high production values, links to reputable news organizations and polished “About” pages were likely to sway students into trusting the contents of the site without much skepticism.

Academic libraries have been increasingly involved in helping college students battle misinformation. Here are a couple of recent articles that explored academic librarians’ efforts on this front: “Academic library guides for tackling fake news: A content analysis” by Sook Lim; and “News Credibility: Adapting and Testing a Source Evaluation Assessment in Journalism” by Piotr S. Bobkowski and Karna Younger.

Yesterday, I read about the following study on TIME magazine, and thought this might be something that academic librarians may find useful as they guide students’ information behavior during the “infodemic”.

A new paper in Psychological Science explores not only why people believe Internet falsehoods but also how to help them become more discerning about what they share. One of the leading reasons misinformation about COVID-19 gains traction is that it’s a topic that scares the daylights out of us. The more emotional valence something we read online has, the likelier we are to pass it on.

That’s in keeping with earlier research out of MIT, published in 2018, showing that fake news spreads faster on Twitter than does the truth. The reason, the researchers in that study wrote, was that lies are “more novel than true news … [eliciting] fear, disgust and surprise,” just the things that give sharing its zing.

Political leanings also influence sharing. A 2019 Science study, from researchers at Northeastern and elsewhere, showed that neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on sharing fake news; mostly people are just choosing content that fits their ideologies.

To dig deeper still into sharing decisions, Rand and colleagues developed a two-part study. In the first, they assembled a sample group of 853 adults and first asked them to take a pair of tests. One, known as the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), measures basic reasoning processes. The other measured basic science knowledge. The sample pool was then divided in half. Both halves were shown the same series of 30 headlines—15 false and 15 true—about COVID-19, but they were instructed to do two different things. One group was asked to determine the accuracy of the headlines. The other was asked if they would be inclined to share the headlines.

The results were striking. The first group correctly identified the truth or falsehood of two-thirds of the headlines. The second group—freed from having to consider accuracy—reported that they would share half the headlines, equally divided between true ones and false ones.

The study did find that people who scored higher on the CRT and basic science tests were a little less indiscriminate. The solution, clearly, is not to force people to pass a reasoning test before they’re admitted online. The second part of the study provided a better answer.

For that portion, a different sample group of 856 adults was again divided in two and again shown the same set of headlines. This time, neither group was asked to determine the accuracy of the headlines; instead, both were asked only if they would share them. But there was still a difference: one group was first shown one of four non- COVID-19-related headlines and asked to determine whether it was true or false. That priming—asking the subjects to engage their critical faculties—made a big difference: the primed group was one-third as likely as the unprimed one to share a false headline.

Thinking critically—especially about the truth of a headline—reduces the spread of fake news.”


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