As the director of Dallas’ central library, Kristen Calvert gets asked all kinds of questions.
Many of them are about the library’s collection or its services. But others are about politics and current events – like whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen. It was a cue to Calvert that the library needed to offer programs to help people identify bias or conspiracy in the news.
“And we set all that up, and people don’t come,” she said.
Calvert realized that people don’t think they need help with media literacy, even if they do. So she came up with a way to covertly offer lessons in identifying bad information.
One of the more popular events at the library is a mock crime scene investigation where wannabe detectives and mystery buffs solve a fake felony with clues found around the library. In October, the crime scenes have had some extra lessons baked in.
“This month we’ve been doing crime scene investigations that are misinformation crime scenes,” Calvert said. “So the clues lead you astray versus to whoever committed the crime. So that was our way of working media literacy into something we’ve already found to be popular.”
It was a way to teach people about concepts like fact-checking without using terms like “fact-checking.” According to Ling Hwey Jeng, professor and director of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, that’s the way to do it.
“Fact-checking rarely convinces anybody because it does very little to reach the sender and receiver’s [relationship],” Jeng said.
If someone spreads false news, it’s because it came from a source they trust. It’s difficult to affect that belief with a fact-check. Instead, to get someone to reevaluate their source’s news, first talk to them about anything but the news. If you can’t agree with someone about basic political facts, Jeng says find other common ground.
Once, after a lecture, a woman came up to Jeng and said she couldn’t figure out how to talk to a neighbor whose extreme political beliefs were largely supported by falsehoods.
“I said, ‘Don’t talk about politics. Talk about her grandson. Talk about her granddaughter,’” Jeng said. “That kind of thing can break down that barrier. And then when they feel like you appreciate their granddaughter, then you’re making a little inroad.”
Personal, non-political conversations help build trust. Although it’s not a short-term strategy, if someone trusts you, then they may also come to trust your sources of information, according to Calvert of the Dallas Public Library.
“The people who are believing that the election was stolen, they’re already coming from a place where they’re not going to trust those sources of information we know are true,” she said. “So you really have to do a lot of, I think, basic groundwork to help people understand, and you might just be laying a small piece of that every time.”