Recent Events

The Wednesday Evening Session: Facts in the Digital Age: Coping in an Era of Total Noise

Don Hawkins and Lee Rainie

Don Hawkins (L) and Lee Rainie
(Photo by Jim Tchobanoff)

The popular evening session was a conversation by well-known CIL speaker Lee Rainie, Director, Internet, Science & Technology Research, Pew Research Center and Peter Raymond, a serial innovator, entrepreneur, strategist, and creative technologist who has worked with cognitive AI and the Internet of Things.

Jane Dysart, Lee Rainie, and Peter Raymond

(L-R) Jane Dysart, Lee Rainie, and Peter Raymond
(Photo by Jim Tchobanoff)

Lee began by presenting some thoughts drawn from Pew’s recent studies. Many things are happening in our culture that are making it more of a challenge than ever before to find the truth. We are in a world of total noise. If you want to be an active, engaged citiizen, you will feel stupid all the time. In a world of total noise we have lost faith in institutions that give us the truth. The word of the day is agnotology, or the science of not knowing. It has created a lot of social challenge and struggle in a world of discerning the truth.

People who make policy are a rare species now. Personal relationships are affected; you judge people by which “team” they are on. Those on the other team are considered to be bad and lazy. Fake news makes life so different that people can’t agree on what’s going on. Polarization of the information environment affects many things; for example, where you buy things becomes a political statement.

The media environment has become part of the story. There is less capacity for institutions to promote the same facts ad share the culture. The environment has created a way for people to be nasty to each other. Online they will say things they would not say to someone’s face. 41% of Americans have been harassed and 66% have seen people harassed online. The tone of conversations is now much more nasty, less civilized, and more angry than it is face to face.

Social media platforms are based on a business model that emphasizes the most nasty and challenging content because the more you are inciting people the more they sell ads. One survey asked if truth will be in better shape or worse in the future; the results were almost evenly split; half of the respondents said that things will get better and half said they will not because this is tribal, and the trolls will always have their way. But we have changed over time as a culture; maybe we can draw some hope. The fake news people got new life because of the printing press and found new ways to promote their cause. And people believed it! The amazing thing about truth is that it is better arrived at by gathering evidence rather than by thinking about it. The best evidence is gathered dispassionately.

Librarians are entering the cyborg age where machines help us evaluate information. People like this and trust libraries because libraries have a lot of good will. Librarians, firefighters, and teachers have survived with their reputations intact in this environment.

Peter responded that we never thought that people would manipulate videos and make fake videos. Why do we enjoy opinions as facts? How are people to understand how you find truth and facts? We can no longer rely on things that we were formerly comfortable with.

Lee: This the first time we are thinking about how technology serves us before it becomes our master. The basic model is that if we give people good information, they will make good decisions. We are now learning that this is not true. If you are presented with a fact that doesn’t agree with your world, you don’t say you are wrong, you say that you will find a way to make it agree. As soon as Facebook put warnings on something, it became click bait for people who wanted to believe it. Trust is an identity marker more than it is the pursuit of truth: “I’m on this team and there is nothing that will move me off it!” We have a tribal attachment to media sources.

There are now new non-human actors involved with information flows; 56% of Tweeted links in popular websites came from bots. Some bots are partisan and others just send out information.

Peter: The idea of speed is interesting. We have gone through a cycle when you had to write something to being able to print it. Now we have bots that send you information.

Lee: An article in Science said that lies have 10 to 15 times more spread than the truth.
If librarians do their job well, they can be very helpful: there is a demand for them more than ever before. People are not sure their filters are set correctly; librarians are antidotes to echo chambers. If the libraries provide truth that is different from what people believe, that is a way to talk about things. It is a teaching moment because librarians are viewed as knowing what they are talking about. We are now learning about cognitive science enough to know what will favorably influence people.

Audience question: If there are two sides to something, and there is a war on truth, are they competing at the same level?

Lee: That is the dilemma of journalism; now they have to call out lies.  Fact checking is a thriving effort. We are developing systems to assess what authorities say when an event happens, but we will never be able to develop systems that always deliver the truth.

Peter: What is our peril? There will be an event that will change this and cause us to become sober. Moderation is the ultimate risk model. The words you put on a page are not as significant as those you choose to omit.

Audience question: We know that mistakes were made when we got rid of the Fairness Doctrine. What are the frameworks we need legally around slander, libel, and fairness? Where should we explore the research to deal with the fake news problem?

Peter: We have a responsibility to help and enable a well informed electorate. We hold certain truths that have been formed over the years. The electorate has a lot of power, and there is an accountability in that. Children are now embarrassing politicians on national  TV; they are the new educated electorate.

Audience question: What is the library’s role in individual change vs. societal change? How can a librarian reach an entire society or community instead of just being at an individual level?

Lee: The scientific revolution eventually spawned education; you had to know things that our ancestors didn’t need to know. There is a yearning for a new set of literacy skills: information and critical thinking. Libraries can think of themselves as creators for this. You must be clear about what you are saying and how your training has equipped you to answer questions.

Peter: Libraries are the most helpful institution I can point to. If you have an ability to connect to that community and a child brings something back to the family, will they be shut down? Give them the tools to ask better questions so they will find them by themselves. How can we help people frame great questions to take to libraries? Science is not the arbiter of absolute truth and facts. Libraries are the best ones to deliver information to create a well informed electorate.

Lee: A lot of lifelong learning is based on altruism; people learn things so they can help others.

Audience question: Many people are accessing information online, but people are also saying we must be proactive. How can we revise library space to make them more effective?

Peter: What you can do to interact with natural systems (light, etc.) helps us understand how much we can incorporate from biological systems. We didn’t even know what a room is until relatively recently. The ability to have flexible space is important, not where the walls go. What makes you the most creative or inquisitive? If you change the light or acoustics, you can change the energy of the room. How do you turn the physical space into a living lesson? Bring in kids and let them do the design–they won’t be constrained by budgets etc.


Lee: The most cited article in the Harvard Business Review said that many companies don’t know what business they are in. Libraries are in the knowledge, learning, and enchantment business. Think about spaces and how you can achieve those goals. Figure out how you best serve your community and help them share and enrich their knowledge.

Peter: You have a lot of power. Know what you do, understand your services and value, and have your community help you understand what they want. Those you serve are responsible for giving something back.

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