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THE PIPELINE: Political Literacy Can Be Learned!

By Stephen Abram - Posted Sep 1, 2016
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Political literacy is a set of abilities considered necessary for citizens to participate in a society’s government. It includes an understanding of how government works and of the important issues facing society, as well as the critical thinking skills to evaluate different points of view.

– Wikipedia


In today’s political environment there is a fog of information. It tests everyone—adult and young adult alike—and our critical-thinking skills. Separating fact from opinion is hard enough. Combine that with public opinion polls, massive quoting of “statistics,” personal stories that elucidate and obfuscate, and everyone is overwhelmed by data and information and spin-doctoring run amok.

Librarians care about information literacy. We care about using facts to support arguments, points of view, and debates. In fact, we’re critical pieces of the educational infrastructure and train or mediate these issues. Librarians:

• Select quality resources.

• Curate collections that support good research.

• Acquire the “best” reference sources.

• Mediate the world of the web by curating website collections and recommendations as well as providing the metadata and search systems that assist in the alleviation of these issues.


We train ourselves and our users.

That noted, most searching happens outside of our libraries. Most information flow is gate-kept by sometimes biased or selective media organizations in television, cable, or news (print and online). Social networks share “facts” through everything from memes, infographics, stories, videos, to just plain posts. On top of that, your filter bubble (more on this later) is rarely “pure,” and it’s influenced by your own social networks, search behaviors, beliefs, background, education, and worldview.

The role of authority and brand has been wholly disrupted. There is good and bad and sometimes just incomplete data, facts, and information out there. There are quality new brands out there as well as struggling older brands that occasionally get caught up in the hunt for ratings and eyeballs. Whom can we trust?

It’s a dog’s breakfast out there!

Can we come to the rescue? Information literacy isn’t a simple construct. It encompasses so much, that I thought this column, coming out at the end of a very long U.S. presidential campaign, might be quite timely.

Make no mistake, I have my preferences in politics and my own beliefs and worldviews. That’s not the point. As a librarian, my core belief is that information matters; truth and facts matter. That said, Stephen Colbert has noted, “Facts have a well-known liberal bias.” He has also noted the new amorphous trend toward “truthiness” which has emerged during the last decade. Wikipedia defines truthiness “as a quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” For example, perhaps we feel the murder rate has done nothing if not gone up because we watch a lot of crime shows or our local situation is different, when the facts are the opposite. A colder-than-normal winter may “prove” to some that global warming is not happening.

This column is about the core sources that form a digital citizenry’s corpus of tools and assist the enquiring mind. When we hear or read a “claim,” where do we go get the real dope? Who has the authority, independence, and resources to investigate claims and see the facts to form an information opinion? Although some librarians see “information,” the noun, as the core of our profession, I see the verbs “to inform” and “to be informed” as the core.

So this challenge is not just for school librarians to prepare the next generation to be informed but for all librarians to assist the whole population—student and adults alike—to evolve in a quickly changing political environment. Every tire needs re-treading occasionally.

Google (and Other Search Engines)

I recently did more than two dozen public focus groups with regular folks—teens, adults, seniors. One of the questions I asked them was about how the search results on Google were ranked. The winning answer by far was “popularity.” Most (not all) search engines do not rank solely on popularity. We need to train people beyond this assumption because it affects their credulity about the results that they get online. Key messages and learning could include these questions:


• How are search engine results ranked?

• What is the role of advertising?

• What is the role of search engine optimization (SEO)?

• What is the role of localization and geographic information systems (GIS) in search?

• Can “bad” people push content into my results?

• Who has an interest in my results?


Librarians know the answers to these questions. We need to share them.

Here are two key issues to know about Google and other search engines:

At present, Google and search engines in general are having a banner (profit) year. In the U.S. both mainstream parties have huge teams of librarians and search engine optimizers ensuring that their candidates and their policies are hitting the top of the results. People need to know the role of GIS in targeting search engine optimization in the search engine’s algorithm. The GIS data is usable to a very fine granular level. You can target different results at the state level for a senate campaign or at the district level for congressional campaigns. Fine. Beyond that, you can use census data to tune the messaging for Latino vs. Cuban neighborhoods, high-income vs. low-income neighborhoods, white vs. black neighborhoods, and more. What one person sees as the results may differ widely to another person’s results just blocks away. You can also target by certain types of areas—you can acquire targeting zones to cover just university and college campuses, for example. There are white-hat and black-hat optimizers in the Wild West of the web.

Combine the above with the more recent targeting tools for mobile and social networks (social media optimization, SMO), and you see extremely sophisticated ads and results used on Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and more. Indeed, the Democratic National Convention launched its Pokémon GO presence and targeting as the July convention commenced. The Republican National Convention has been a huge user of Twitter at every level, famously right to the top. YouTube, Vine, and Periscope are also channels of information in video format that have social components.

Much is made about “facts” that come out of these sources alone. I try to check the facts, but even I can be subject to confirmation bias! We all need to build political literacy skills.

Starting Out

Do you look for information that confirms you point of view or biases and beliefs? Or do you look for information that challenges what you hear and know? It’s not so black and white, and we all are more likely somewhere on a spectrum of choices.

When we challenge a “fact” or point of view and need to know if it’s “true” or can be substantiated, we must first be aware of the issues and challenges associated with what we receive through search engines and social media.

We also must be aware of our own “filter bubble.” According to Wikipedia (

A filter bubble is a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior, user profile, and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. Prime examples are Google Personalized Search results and Facebook’s personalized news stream. The term was coined by internet activist Eli Pariser in his book by the same name. According to Pariser, users get less exposure to conflicting viewpoints and are isolated intellectually in their own informational bubble. Pariser related an example in which one user searched Google for “BP” and got investment news about British Petroleum, while another searcher got information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He noted that the two search results pages were “strikingly different.” The bubble effect may have negative implications for civic discourse, according to Pariser, but there are contrasting views suggesting the effect is minimal and addressable.


The next page contains some readings that provide useful overviews and insights into the world of fact-checking. I’ve tried to include sites beyond the U.S.—including Canada, the U.K., and Europe. Heaven knows that the summer Brexit vote created new flows of fact fog.




“Teaching Political Literacy,” Citizenship Foundation

Full Fact
Full Fact is the U.K.’s independent fact-checking organization.


The political literacy companion site to the award-winning, it provides resources to help students recognize flaws in arguments.

The Duke Reporters’ Lab
The Lab maintains a database of global fact-checking sites.

Pew Research Center: Journalism and Media Project.

Poynter: A Global Leader in Journalism

United States National Literacy Policies EDCI 874 > National Literacy Policy Analysis ‎ > ‎ Political Literacy



FactsCan Canada, “Canada’s political fact-checker. Independent. Transparent. Non-partisan.”


Understanding Polls

538 Blog FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis—hard numbers—to tell compelling stories about elections, politics, sports, science, economics and culture.


Thinking About Fact-Checking

“The Limits of Fact-Checking,” Jack Shafer

“On Bullshit,” Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous essay.

“The Rise—And Limits—Of Political Fact-Checking,” Brian Lambert

“Why We’re Post-Fact,” Peter Pomerantsev, Granta.



Here are some sites that can be added to people’s personal learning as personal kits. Many people know the top ones such as PolitiFact and Snopes. There are more! is a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. It monitors the accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases. Its goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship to increase public knowledge. PolitiFact is run by the Tampa Bay Times. PolitiFact is an independent fact-checking website that aims to help people find “truth in politics” by monitoring statements from U.S. politicians. PolitiFact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its coverage of the 2008 Presidential election. is your nonpartisan guide to money’s influence on U.S. elections and public policy. Whether you’re a voter, journalist, activist, student, or interested citizen, use this free site to shine light on the government.

Media Matters for America Media Matters is a liberal-swaying fact-check source. According to the website, it is “dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. Media.” defined as “news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible that forwards the conservative agenda.”

NewsBusters News Busters is a conservative-swaying fact-check source. It is a project of the Media Research Center, which labels itself as an “American Media Watchdog.” that aims to “expose and combat the Liberal Media bias.”

Project Vote Smart Project Vote Smart, also called Vote Smart, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that collects and distributes information on candidates for public office in the United States. It covers candidates and elected officials in six basic areas: background information, issue positions (via the Political Courage Test), voting records, campaign finances, interest group ratings, and speeches and public statements.

Washington Post Fact Checker The Washington Post Fact Checker’s purpose “is to ‘truth squad’ the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local.” It seeks “to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various ‘code words’ used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.”

Voter’s Edge and Smart Voter Voter’s Edge and Smart Voter provide voters with comprehensive, nonpartisan information about the contests on their ballots in an easy-to-use presentation. Smart Voter also provides a means for candidates to publish information about their candidacy directly to voters. This service is made possible through partnerships with the League of Women Voters and various state election officials around the U.S.


Fact-Check Websites for Bogus Emails and Posts

Lastly, we need to consider some of the rumors that are just too crazy to be true. Then again, you can fool some of the people some of the time. Here are the top sites for debunking urban legends.

Snopes (

Urban Legends (

Hoax Busters (

VMyths ( (


So, there you have it, the makings of a 20–30 minute classroom session and handout on the ways to test what you hear and see—socially, on the web, in print, or on TV.

Librarians are, by definition and values, nonpartisan. That said, we are not unbiased. We are biased toward quality and fact-based, research-based, informed opinion.

Be careful out there!


Stephen Abram would love to hear from you at

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