Current Awareness Strategy Blog

Become your organisation’s trusted advisor by spotting fake news before anyone else

I had the privilege to speak at the KMInsight conference recently and thought that it would be helpful to publish an excerpt from my presentation. My overall theme was ‘how can we use tech to empower the legal librarian role and unlock value’ and my 3 case studies illustrated some of the challenges that organisations are facing due to information overload.

Maintaining and building trust with end-users remains an important issue for information professionals so this is my focus here. In my role at Vable I regularly share information so I need to know that my sources are reliable, trustworthy and well researched. The conference was an excellent opportunity to discuss ‘trusting one’s judgment’ in the face of a growing amount of 'fake news'.

It’s not how we say it, but what we say

There are many articles which discuss the merits of the available channels of online communication. But now it is all about content and what you are sharing. Although it is important to find out which type of social media is appropriate, or whether organisations are pushing email or instant messaging etc, intranets v extranets, content matters

When you are responsible for providing content, it is essential to have a selection of useful, relevant, reliable and well-written information to share with people. The challenge is to find interesting sources which are beyond the mainstream and this is where we need to control and critically evaluate our sources.

Read more about adding the right sources

Owning up to - and learning from - mistakes  

To my knowledge I have only been bitten by a bad article once. It was a Medium advertorial, and someone on Twitter pounced on me to point out my faux pas. When you are the voice of a company, reputation is everything. The reason companies take this type of risk is to create an authentic online company persona so they can cultivate relationships. 

Every company needs to be visible to everyone, so that you can participate in, and strike up conversations. We are looking to technology to tackle some of the more obviously malicious information on the web, especially on social media. However human judgment remains central to what we do.

Misinformation or Disinformation or Mal-information?

Obviously posting a bad article with a paragraph of advertising is not the same as attempting to mislead the public in matters of national importance. Let’s be realistic. But it is still a matter of professional pride to not give oxygen to this type of writing. 

All this raises questions about building a trustworthy information sharing narrative. I dislike the umbrella term ‘fake news’ because it is so imprecise. The terminology - misinformation, disinformation etc - needs clarification and a recent blogpost explains the various categories of ‘bad’ information; 

  • Misinformation: Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm (e.g. someone posting an article containing now out of date information but not realizing it).
  • Disinformation:  Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country (e.g. a competitor purposely posting false statistics about your organization with an intent to discredit you)
  • Mal-information:  Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country (e.g. someone using a picture of a dead child refugee (with no context) in an effort to ignite hatred of a particular ethnic group they are against.

As George Orwell said, “the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth” (1984). This means that information people - and other trusted intermediaries - are more important than ever for reliable current awareness.

Find out if you're making the most of Google

Solutions to an information conundrum

Our only defence against bias and fake news is awareness and scepticism; we must make a value judgement as to whether something is accurate or not. In an era where experts are mistrusted, and there is a trend towards anti-intellectual thinking, if we do not get it right there is a risk to democratic society. 

This is why in the age of information overload, more and more companies are relying on their professional services to be the arbiters of truth. Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a rise in professional services providing highly tailored news and alerts for their clients. Some companies are providing these services as a value add, part of their business development strategy for driving client engagement.  

Other companies are going further, creating new revenue streams by outsourcing their knowledge management teams expertise and in some cases even managing their premium subscriptions for them. Aggregation is the ultimate in vendor collaboration because ultimately when you have a pool of good reliable sources of information, you can then curate it to tell your own stories.

Who is responsible for spotting fake news - and other questions

Data scientists are in a virtual arms race, working hard to introduce ways of detecting inconsistencies and problems. From personal experience with NLP, it takes a lot of effort to get the balance right. Computers rely on a large quantity of accurate training data to learn and it is not always satisfactory.

This begs the question - if tech can’t pick out the real from the fake, who is responsible for spotting the everyday April Fool’s stories? I asked our conference audience questions such as, is it our job as aggregators to judge the veracity of the news? Is it the information professional’s - or should it be the reader of the news? We all have a responsibility to be sceptical.

But what happens when a previously reliable newspaper becomes nothing more than clickbait, or overtly political? When I used to scan the quality press for my law firm’s current awareness alerts, it was a reliable diet of the FT, Times, Guardian, Telegraph and Independent. In later years I added the BBC, Reuters, and Bloomberg. Would I include the Telegraph, BBC and Independent now, I’m not so certain.

Why choose a regular publisher with uncertain affiliations when you can read an independent, well researched blog? Why share the usual sources with your audience when you can find neutral, factual, original, expert or market leaders commentary and share that instead? We need high quality, hand-picked information feeds - not just taken wildly from Google alerts, unknown blogs or Twitter timelines.

The only answer I have is to do our due diligence, and critically assess everything. I think about this Tweet every time I post something. "Who cares about websites? Can we be channel agnostic?". I don’t mind where the news or information comes from, I want to consider whether it will inform, excite, demonstrate expertise to my audience.

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