Information Literacy in the Age of Fake News and Alt-Facts

By Lisa Blansett, Associate Director of First-Year Writing, UConn and Donovan Reinwald, Instructional Librarian, HBL, UConn

Being able to find out more about a topic, issue, or event is always a challenge, but when the facts may not be facts, that job is that much more difficult. Conversations about whether facts are facts can get heated in the classroom or on social media, so heated that a student’s frustration can become something altogether bigger, uglier, and much more public. Although I’d never shy away from difficult topics in a classroom, I do want to guide students toward a wider repertoire of responses than “that’s wrong.” We’ve turned far too many conversations into fiery polemics.

In particular, we’d like to help students move away from the binaries of black and white, yes and no, fake and real, “liberal” and “conservative.” Instead, we are working with students to ask entirely different questions that move them to think and seek and find and use and create. We’ve found that students who are able to build contexts around their existing ideas become more flexible, more persistent, more open to considering alternatives. And they become generators of knowledge, not just consumers.

firefighters putting out a fire
When It Feels Like You Put Out Fires in Your Classroom All Day

We start by stopping, by which we mean we ask students to slow their consumption and even their explorations down. The twenty-four-hour news cycle moves at, well, warp speed, flashing words and images at us which we have difficulty digesting before the next one-hundred and forty characters scroll by. Take a tip from the “Slow TV Movement”: “Slow TV seems slow in part because, unlike our standard experience of the world, it’s unshaped by interior consciousness. Instead of drowning out its viewers’ inner lives, it seems to want to be a backdrop that can give rise to their own reflections” (Heller, New Yorker). Transferring that ethos to working through all the information that comes at us every day means we have enough time to think about the information, rather than just “catch” it (and retweet it) as we scroll merrily along.

Slowing down means taking the time not just to read the TL;DR article, but to look up some of those people quoted, find out some more about where the incident took place, reflect on the implications of the facts and their presentation.

The slowing down thwarts the simple reaction, the conditioned (or long practiced) response we might have. Slowing down gives us time and the cognitive resources to work on three techniques of information literacy that we’ve given the acronym REM: Research, Evaluate, Move.

Research sources to create a context of more knowledge, more information, more perspectives.

Evaluate the plausibility of what you see and read, evaluate the writer’s credibility, weigh the organizations connections, corroborate the evidence.

Move the questions we ask of texts away from those binaries of yes-no, and toward questions of process, method, perspective, effects.

The three aren’t separate approaches or discrete tasks; each offers something to DO with a text, to make something more alongside the text. For example, we might ask students to define what “fake news” is. The phrase (epithet, really) gets thrown around a lot, and as it turns out, the information may well be true; it’s just that the reader doesn’t agree with it. It’s a phrase meant to divide, discredit, and denigrate whether the charge is true or not. Instead of lingering over the latest bickering over whose truth wins, we’d ask students to look at an incident or idea and then assemble a thick archive of materials around it. (We might provide students with a bit of guidance in the form of a grid of “types” of sources to look at). With several different types of sources—a first-hand account in court testimony, a news report, official documents, long traditions, surveys, boundaries, cultural practices, and so on—students can look at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) with more than a single source they can react to, agree or disagree with. We would also ask students to take a closer look at how those texts appeal to an audience, how they assemble their information, how they convey it, down to the words they use (are there lots of adjectives? Lots of loaded terms?).

The appeals a text makes can obscure those elements we can agree are facts, so its worthwhile asking students to isolate those facts from the appeal. We discussed a classroom learning activity our recent Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) workshop that focused on identifying the objective, verifiable facts embedded in an inflammatory meme. You can see the meme at Snopes. It’s difficult to find attribution for that meme, and as we don’t know the copyright status, we won’t include it as an illustration here. We do use the meme as an object of scrutiny and an opportunity to learn from an image of a man riding and falling of a Hoverboard.

The meme yields very few facts:

  1. “Hoverboards” have caught fire and exploded frequently. (Source: Hollister, CNET).
  2. In Dubai, traditional dress for Arab men includes a Kandura (or dishdasha; a long robe or tunic) and Ghurtrah (head covering) (Source: “Traditional Clothing”).

Students then must put together the thought process for connecting a man traditional Arab dress for men and an exploding luxury toys to terrorism or cultural intelligence. When students search for the meme itself again (using a reverse-image search tool) on the open web, they may well find that the meme has been used to make three different arguments, revealing that images aren’t transparent and unproblematic: meaning is shaped and attached to these images depending on context, user, and viewer.

We’ve included several links to research tools (like the reverse-image search) and other classroom learning activities as well as more examples of investigating and interpreting texts and more resources in our Google Slides version, which we invite you to examine, ask questions about, and comment on.


Hellum, Thomas. “Why Would Millions Tune into ‘Slow TV’?” NPR TED Radio Hour (Aug 26, 2016).

Hollister, Sean. “Here is the Reason Why So Many Hoverboards are Exploding and Catching Fire” CNET (July 9, 2016).

“Traditional Clothing in UAE.” Blog (August 26, 2010)