Students learn to spot falsities

Workshop emphasizes fact checking to help people spot ‘fake news’

By Ryan Geller, Advocate Staff

Fact checking and verifying sources to discern “fake news” from credible information was the topic of the final workshop of a research skills series presented by the Contra Costa College Library.

Judy Flum, library department chairperson and professor of library studies, discussed the different types of fake news, their dangers and what to do about fake news.

The presentation included a video about white supremacist Dylann Roof who murdered nine people at a historic black church and how the Google search algorithm may have fueled his racist hatred. The Google search algorithm, or the program used to select a user’s search results, will customize those results based on the user’s previous search history.

According to the video, “The Miseducation of Dylann Roof” from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Roof did not grow up with a racist family and even had black friends prior to the murders.

The video tracks Roof’s on-line comments and sites that he visited after he entered the phrase “black on white crime.” The phrase generated results from white supremacist sites that portrayed black on white crime as an epidemic although FBI crime statistics show that white on white crime is far more common.

As Roof continued to search, the algorithm provided results similar to the misleading information. The video makes the argument that “fragile minds” can be dangerously affected by search engines that encourage a user’s bias toward certain information.

Flum spoke of the effects of fake news on the 2016 U.S. presidential election along with a host of other incidents in which fake news had very real economic, political and social consequences.

The workshop laid out techniques for verifying sources of information, such as using the “about us” page to verify the credentials of “experts” who are presenting information through an organization or on a website.

Jim Grizzell professor of health education at CCC attended the workshop.

“I have about 20 Facebook friends who are totally clueless about fake news. I try to tactfully encourage them to cite their sources,” Grizzell said.

Flum recommended websites like Snopes, Fact check, Politifact and The Washington Post Fact-Checker to cross reference sources to determine their validity. She also noted questions to ask about a source like, does it contain advertising?, what types of people or organizations support or publish the source?, are the arguments backed up by scientific studies?

Much of this information used to be part of a library studies course that was required for graduation but CCC dropped many of its local requirements to be more competitive with other colleges.

“It’s a shame because students really need this information,” Flum said.

Students can be specifically targeted with certain types of fake news.

Sonja Escobar, an auto mechanics major at CCC found information like this to be particularly frustrating.

“I tried to sign up for scholarships and some of them were fake. They even said things like ‘college funding for single mothers’ and ‘funding for honor roll students.’ The information in this workshop is going to help me understand which ones are fake,” Escobar said.

Luanna Waters, a social and behavioral sciences major at CCC, also attended the workshop. “When I find good information I like to pass it on, but I want to make sure I don’t pass on bad information,” she said.

The series included five other workshops titled Introduction to Microsoft Word and Power Point, Searching online data bases, Improving your web search skills, and Avoiding plagiarism with Noodletools and Turn-it-in.