Escaping the post-truth echo chamber

Tami Oliphant, a professor in the University of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, is finding her research interests are not only timely, but as topical as the day’s headlines.

“My area of research is what’s called information behaviour, which looks at how people seek information, use information, share information, and what I’m looking at now is how they use information in everyday life to make decisions,” says Oliphant. “It’s interesting to see how people use information and language in order to construct facts and to justify their beliefs. Obviously this can have serious consequences.”

At a time when false news stories are widely propagated through social media and the president of the United States publicly utters demonstrable untruths on a daily basis, the potential for serious consequences is hard to overstate. Oliphant will address the topic of information literacy as a panelist at the Kule Institute for Advanced Studies’ Around the World Worldwide Live Streamed Conference on “Digital Media in the Post-truth Era” on Thursday, May 4.

We spoke with Oliphant about how feelings have come to eclipse facts in the post-truth era, possible strategies for re-establishing consensus reality, and how people can escape their own information echo chambers.

Faculty of Education: How do you view the advent of the so-called “post-truth era” as a scholar of library and information studies?

Tami Oliphant: Post-truth and alternative facts bring to the fore how we privilege beliefs, emotions and worldviews over information and knowledge. We’re seeing the diminishment and dismissal of facts in order to support our ideology, self-interest, and to confirm the biases that we hold. In library and information studies, we tend to study objective information—information that’s been published, that can be retrieved, and that’s in a format external to the person. Understanding external information is key to developing critical information literacy skills: does the information come from an authoritative source, who is the author, what are their credentials, and how is it shared? What I have been especially interested in are the psychological and internal conditions that post-truth brings to the fore including the experiences, beliefs, and emotions that we bring to any kind of interaction with information.

I am also interested in how people use information and language in order to construct facts and to justify their beliefs, and the consequences of these discursive formations. Information interactions are always complex interplays between internal conditions and the external world of information. At some point in our lives I would argue that almost everyone has changed their beliefs about something and I’m curious about that process—how do people change their beliefs? What kind of information can actually help to correct misinformation and when it is given? We all exist in echo chambers of some kind but where are the bridges? Where are the entry points that invite a conversation?

Recently, there has been a focus on political information and misinformation, and research indicates some contradictory findings. On the one hand, research indicates that if you are empathetic to people when they explain their beliefs, they tend to be more receptive to corrective information. However, in our increasingly polarized world, it can be extremely difficult to be empathetic to someone who holds views different from your own. On the other hand, there is a “backfire effect”—when people believe information that is erroneous or wrong and then are given corrective information, instead of changing their views, they become further entrenched in their viewpoint. I’m interested in seeing at what point or points people are receptive to new information or corrective information.

Because many of our beliefs are formulated in adolescence, it’s crucial to provide funding for education and ensure students are getting a wide range of information. They need to learn how to critique information, and also develop self-awareness regarding their own responses to information.

Faculty of Education: How does social media play into this echo chamber effect?

TO: Social media plays a huge role in all of this. There seem to be different aspects to social media platforms that have different consequences for users. For example, many young people use Tumblr which has a cohesive and robust policy on trolling, stalking and online abuse, and consequently, teenagers and young adults prefer that platform because they feel safer on it, whereas Twitter seems designed for abuse. And of course with Facebook, it’s the algorithms and fake news stories that are the problem, so I think there are a variety of consequences depending on the platform you use. Even when you search Google, the results you get back do not represent objective reality; it’s all been personalized just for you and is part of a system that can be gamed, which is a real danger. We might need to be a bit smarter about how we interact with these platforms and the information we receive from them. Two of the advantages I do see with social media are that first, you can broaden the variety of people you’re speaking to, although I am sceptical about how often this happens; and second, echo chambers can be comforting and places of ongoing support.

Faculty of Education: What can people do to be less susceptible to misinformation they might be exposed to?

TO: Those old standbys of critical information literacy are very valuable—checking the source, the currency, the accuracy, doing due diligence to find out who is stating this, who supports this, where is this information coming from. But one thing we haven’t done in library and information studies that I’d like to see all of us start doing is examining our own biases, our own thought processes, and understanding that people will believe or accept some information over others because of their beliefs. We need to look inwardly as well as externally. I think the psychological aspect is really important.