The information industry has never been more aware of the importance of current awareness provision. Keeping up to date with news, markets, clients, and industries is central to the success of all types of organisations - from legal, financial services, health, or the third sector. Information and research services, or equivalent, are generally responsible for managing and delivering accurate, reliable, and targeted updates for their end-users.
But as recent expert discussion demonstrates - and this is not fake news - there are challenges ahead. As an information professional myself, I am incredibly excited about the technological changes that are reshaping our work. And although certain aspects of the role are made easier by tech, I am convinced that the information professional is now more necessary than ever.
First - some good news for consumers
Current awareness used to be limited by physical paper and glue; it was easily manageable as we scanned and clipped a limited number of daily trustworthy newspapers. However we are now dealing with a growing range of sources and struggling to rationalise and make sense of everything available. Happily, innovative technology is enabling us to structure content in new and interesting ways, and our clients are benefitting from flexible and personalised current awareness services.
Premium news aggregation services are the information professional’s friend. Primarily content agnostic, they are harvesting resources from thousands of premium news sites, as well as non-traditional news services from around the world. They can include internal company information, insight/opinion/thought leadership pieces, blog and user generated content, as well as institutional and governmental press releases. However as Dr Andrew Duchon recently confirmed, not everything on the web is worth reading - or watching.
The rise of automated news
A recent talk highlighted some of the technological leaps in the way the news is generated and disseminated. There have been stories about the automation of the entire news production process. For instance in November it was announced that a Chinese news station had introduced an automated news anchor for 24 hour broadcast.
Some experts have since queried if this ‘sophisticated digital puppet’ is an example of true AI, but the potential for its future development is clearly visible - and mildly alarming. Whilst these developments make for an efficient news production line, it removes an important layer of human intervention - and judgement - in order to check the veracity of news. As with other areas of AI, it becomes an ethical question.
It is already the norm to have stories that are primarily driven by statistics being created with robo journalism, for instance the weather, football, and some financial news. This is fairly innocuous, however dubious clickbait and deliberate misinformation, also known as ‘fake news’ is more troubling. What will this mean for consumers once systems can automatically create news scripts and then be delivered by automated news anchors?
Be Savvy; Avoid BS
The alarm over fake news is justified; we have already seen the political consequences of disinformation. Facebook is proactively removing accounts that have consistently broken rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behaviour, but it is a constant battle. Data scientists are in a virtual arms race, working hard to introduce ways of detecting inconsistencies and problems. From personal experience with current awareness, computers rely on a large quantity of accurate training data to learn. In this case, the benchmark dataset for fake news detection is Liar Liar Pants on Fire.
Technology is helping us tackle some of the more obviously malicious misinformation on the web - especially on social media - but has limited application due to the sheer volume of information and its constantly changing nature. However, one open source Chrome extension was designed with Facebook in mind. B.S. Detector searches all links on a given webpage for references to unreliable sources, checking against a manually compiled list of domains.
Is it our job as aggregators to judge the veracity of the news - or is it the information professional’s - or should it be the reader of the news?
But 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. 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.
A practical approach to spotting the fakesGiven these disturbing conclusions, a timely discussion in late November provided a helpful reminder about the practical and human approach needed to identify lies, spin, misinformation, and fiction. Critical reading skills are essential so that you can sense immediately whether a piece is an advertorial or something more viral. As Jo Tinning-Clowes recommended, double checking everything isn’t enough anymore, we must triple check!
If in doubt, it’s probably worth checking the main fact-checking sites immediately. Depending on the topic, you could try Snopes, Politifact, and factcheck.org. These are useful if the story has been around for a while, and you can also cross check it with other outlets. Very often reputable news sites will not publish anything until it has been verified. However this can be an issue if the story has been reported on Twitter or other instant stream.
Where available, the source or publisher of the story is key, as are the authors or bylines. Look at the website where the story comes from to see if there is an ‘About Us’ section; if this leaves you in any doubt regarding language, history, content or motive, investigate further. For example, I was classifying news websites flagged by the content team and I felt certain that something was amiss with two of them. They had different names, branding and URLs, and they were both authoritative looking. On further investigation, the About Us sections were identical so I was immediately suspicious, and would want to add a 'use with caution' should any of these articles be used for research purposes.
Other elements to take into account are the references and links within the text, so check the URLs and follow them to see if they are reliable. Occasionally the headline and text might not match, which is generally the case with clickbait and scientifically dubious articles. Also do not underestimate images; a quick Google Reverse Image Search might just cement your suspicions.
‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’
The technology has changed, but people haven’t. This is especially true in the context of recent current awareness discussions. It is almost reassuring. Despite all the fears around global misinformation and deliberate fakes, sensational stories have circulated in one form or another for many years because people enjoy reading them. But the combination of evolving technologies and ongoing critical scepticism means that we can challenge the more damaging fakes.
Is it our job as aggregators to judge the veracity of the news - or is it the information professional’s - or should it be the reader of the news? We will continue battling with this question in the years ahead. Despite the warning signs, in my view 2018 was a good year for consumers of news information - people are finally realising that they need to critically read the news. This is partly due to the joint efforts of current awareness/news aggregators and the library and information professionals.
Are you worried about fake news? What steps are you taking to spot the fakes? Let us know your thoughts below!
With thanks to the excellent SLA Europe event ‘News on News’.