Global Gleanings #1: inaccurate maps, fallacies & fake news,

From August 2018 LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), carries a column entitled “Global gleanings”, in which I highlight recent publications of professional and scholarly interest as well as quaint snippets from the international literature of LIS and related fields.

Space limitations preclude the publishing of long lists of references. Instead, they will appear in this blog. Here is the first such list.

Had I not become involved in library management and LIS education, I would have liked to be a music librarian or a map librarian. Both music and maps are long-time interests of mine, and my attention was drawn recently to an article by Frank Jacobs (2019) entitled “Maps showing California as an island? Meet cartography’s most persistent mistake”. Jacob writes about the Glen McLaughlin Collection at Stanford University, in California. It consists of more than seven hundred maps collected by Glen McLaughlin over a period of forty years, all depicting California as an island separated from the mainland of North America.

McLaughlin, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, started his collection in 1971when he found a 1663 map of North America on which California is depicted as a large, carrot-shaped island. Intrigued, he started collecting more maps depicting this fallacy. Although an early map dated 1597 showed California correctly attached to the mainland, from 1622 onwards, subsequent maps showed California as an island. This fallacy persisted in spite of contrary evidence. By 1747, King Ferdinand VI of Spain was fed up by this cartographic error affecting his dominions in the New World, and he issued a decree stating that “California is not an island.”  The California fallacy persisted, as fallacies tend to do. The last map showing California as an island is a Japanese map of 1865, well after extensive exploration, settlement, and the gold rush of 1849. Jacobs’ article depicts many of these maps.

This case raises the question: why did the fallacy persist so long? One reason is that cartographers relied a bit too trustingly on the work of their predecessors. Information from seafarers and explorers was used by cartographers as it became available, but for the bigger picture they relied on earlier maps. As a result, errors were copied from edition to edition, and from map to map. (Today we see this in the assignments of students who copy and paste uncritically statements they find on the web.) Another factor is political. For reasons that would take too long to set out here (but see Jacobs), for a time it suited the Spaniards to have California mapped as an island.

For those colleagues who are privileged to work with old maps – here’s a challenge to spot the fallacies that were disseminated in maps of South Africa.

This brings me to the issue of fake news.  Is the depiction of California as an island fake news? It depends. If the cartographers mistakenly believed this to be case, they were issuing misinformation. But if the maps were compiled and distributed deliberately with an intention to deceive, by persons knowing that it is not true, it is fake news (disinformation). Fake news is defined in terms of facticity (whether it is factually correct or not) and intention (the motives of the people spreading it). If the Spanish court deliberately cultivated the fallacy for political ends, it was disinformation. But if ignorant cartographers copied the error in good faith, that was misinformation. Fake news is both incorrect and deliberately misleading. Useful discussions of what constitutes fake news can be found in an article by LIS theorist John Buschman (2018) and in an entry by Bente Kalsnes (2018) in the Oxford research encyclopedia of information.

A great deal of fake news is spread ignorantly by people who believe it to be factually correct. On social media such news can spread like the proverbial wildfire, and once it has been widely disseminated, efforts by fact-checkers to debunk fake news are generally ineffective. Fake news tends to be sensational, while corrected facts are sober and draw less attention (for more on this, see Beck 2017; Meyer 2018; and Funke 2019). Politicians such as Mr Trump have muddied the waters by labelling as “fake news” whatever news reports displease them (Funke 2017). How then are people to know what “genuinely” is fake news, and what is not?

Educational and library bodies have issued guidelines for identifying fake news (see for example Andersdotter 2017; Garvey 2017). IFLA’s infographic (IFLA 2019) has been translated into more than forty languages. Librarians and educators have been engaged in teaching information and media literacy for several decades. In fact, such endeavours are one of the biggest and most popular topics in our profession. Every year scores of books are published about it. How is it then that, after a generation of students has been taught how to evaluate the credibility of news sources, Mr Trump was nevertheless elected and the British voters voted for Brexit?  Many studies have been conducted on how people respond to fake news, and various sociological and psychological factors have been identified. In the USA a study by the Media Insight Project (2017) showed that the degree to which people trust news is determined more by who shared it than by who created it. Another recent study found that people draw a distinction between information sources that are dishonest and those that are biased. If they believe a source of information to be biased, they may dismiss information provided by it even if they agree that it is scrupulously honest (Grabmeier 2019).

Not surprisingly there has been some scepticism regarding the effectiveness of the efforts of librarians and educators in “immunizing” students against fake news. Fake news is an ongoing threat to liberal democracies and combating it is a challenge to the library profession, not least because it is difficult to agree on whose truth is really truth.

References

Andersdotter, Karolina. 2017. ‘Alternative Facts and Fake News – Verifiability in the Information Society’. IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. January 27. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2017/01/27/alternative-facts-and-fake-news-verifiability-in-the-information-society/.

Beck, Julie. 2017. ‘This Article Won’t Change Your Mind’. The Atlantic. March 13. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-article-wont-change-your-mind/519093/.

Buschman, John. 2018. ‘Good News, Bad News, and Fake News: Going beyond Political Literacy to Democracy and Libraries’. Journal of Documentation, November. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JD-05-2018-0074.

Funke, Daniel. 2017. ‘Should We Stop Saying “Fake News”?’ Poynter. December 14. https://www.poynter.org/news/should-we-stop-saying-fake-news.

———. 2019. ‘Misinformation Transcends Platforms, Languages and Countries. How Can Fact-Checkers Stop It?’ Poynter. May 15. https://www.poynter.org/fact-checking/2019/misinformation-transcends-platforms-languages-and-countries-how-can-fact-checkers-stop-it/.

Garvey, Maureen. 2017. ‘Fake News– How the Library Can Help’. CSI Library Newsletter. May 25. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/blogs/newsletter/2017/05/25/fake-news-how-the-library-can-help/.

Grabmeier, Jeff. 2019. ‘Is That News Really “Fake,” or Is It Just Biased?’ Ohio State News. July 8. https://news.osu.edu/is-that-news-really-fake-or-is-it-just-biased/.

IFLA. 2019. ‘How to Spot Fake News’. IFLA. April 17. https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174.

Kalsnes, Bente. 2018. ‘Fake News’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, September. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.809.

Media Insight Project. 2017. ‘Who Shared It? How Americans Decide What News to Trust on Social Media’. “The Media Insight Project. http://mediainsight.org/PDFs/Trust%20Social%20Media%20Experiments%202017/MediaInsight_Social%20Media%20Final.pdf.

Meyer, Robinson. 2018. ‘The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News’. The Atlantic, March 8. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/.

 

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About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. He is a part-time professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He also teaches a course in international and comparative librarianship at the School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA.
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