An infodemic: bad news
In an earlier column I referred to the “infodemic”: a veritable avalanche of news, information, and misinformation that has accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic. Misinformation in a health crisis can have serious, even fatal, consequences. Comments by opinion leaders such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro (“it’s just a little flu”) or President Trump (“It will just go away, you’ll see”) can seriously undermine the efforts of their epidemiologists and public health workers to bring the pandemic under control. This is illustrated by the high rates of infection in Brazil and the USA respectively. The misinformation put out by “viral” social media messages and by slick anti-establishment, pseudo-science websites spreads like wildfire, stoking distrust, suspicion, frustration and anger. My mother used to quote a Dutch proverb to the effect that, “no matter how fast a lie runs, the truth will always catch up with it”. Unfortunately, today that is no longer true. By the time the facts have been checked and the correct information is disseminated, the offending message, having done its mischief, has already been forgotten, buried in a layer of new misinformation.
It is becoming clearer that the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories and how people receive and respond to such messages is a complex phenomenon. A statistical analysis of more than 100 million Twitter messages showed that waves of potentially unreliable information, which the authors regarded as a serious threat to public health, preceded the rise of Covid-19 infections in various countries. Once infections increased, more credible information started dominating Twitter content. Conspiracy theories fill a deep-rooted human need to understand our place in the world. So they tend to proliferate when an alarming emergency occurs in an information vacuum – as was the case in the early stages of the pandemic, when little was known about the virus. Conspiracy theories tend to follow the same pattern: a catastrophic event allows hidden operatives to seize power, subvert the people’s constitutional rights and impose a global government.
Librarians have been quick to advocate for information literacy as a means of combating misinformation. However, given that librarians have been promoting information literacy for decades, the wide dissemination and belief in conspiracy theories suggests that our efforts have not been very effective. A recent systematic literature review of library responses to the pandemic found that most studies have focussed on information literacy, and that they offer little evidence of success in combating fake news. A group of researchers in the USA has identified gaps in public librarians’ understanding of fake news. They suggested a programme of research on how to deal with this.
An infodemic: good news
An infodemic of misinformation is a bad thing. But there is also an “infodemic” of a more positive nature: a remarkably rapid increase and sharing of research articles, reports and data about the virus and its effects. By January 2021 a search for Covid-19 on the PubMed database of the US National Library of Congress yielded over 90,000 hits. BBC Science Correspondent Victoria Gill describes how rapidly critical research data was disseminated through informal personal networks and open access data repositories. This has been a major factor in the unprecedented speed with which vaccines have been developed. However, the huge trove of literature threatens to overwhelm scientists. New techniques and systems have to be developed to help scientists cope. One of the positive side-effects of the pandemic is that it has highlighted the importance of Open Solutions: open science, open data, open access to published information, and open educational resources. The ecosystem of scientific information will never be the same again. Librarians need to take note and make sure that they seize the opportunities the changes offer.
And now for something completely different…
With everything around us changing with dizzying speed, here is an article that takes us back to calmer times, to a library dinosaur I grew up with: the card catalogue. At the University of Virginia, a team of volunteers is working to preserve the university library’s old card catalogue, which holds about four million cards in 65 cabinets with 4,000 drawers. Why on earth? Catalogue cards often contain information that is not captured when they are converted to machine-readable format. The catalogue is an historical artefact – and those cards tell a story the OPAC can’t.
 Scientists Collective, ‘EXPERT ADVISORY: Fake News and Misinformation Kill: How Can You Trust What You Are Told about Covid-19?’, Daily Maverick, 22 November 2020, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-11-22-fake-news-and-misinformation-kills-how-can-you-trust-what-you-are-told-about-covid-19/.
 The Guardian, 23 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/brazils-jair-bolsonaro-says-coronavirus-crisis-is-a-media-trick
 Peter Johan Lor, Bradley J. Wiles, and Johannes J. Britz, ‘Re-Thinking Information Ethics: Truth, Conspiracy Theories, and Librarians in the Covid-19 Era’, Libri, In press.
 N. Eva and E. Shea, ‘Marketing Libraries in an Era of “Fake News”’, Reference and User Services Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2018): 168–71.
 Jorge Revez and Luís Corujo, ‘Librarians against Fake News: A Systematic Literature Review of Library Practices (Jan. 2018–Sept. 2020)’, The Journal of Academic Librarianship 47, no. 2 (1 March 2021): 102304, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102304.
 Jason C. Young et al., ‘The Role of Libraries in Misinformation Programming: A Research Agenda’, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 26 October 2020, 0961000620966650, https://doi.org/10.1177/0961000620966650.
 Victoria Gill, ‘Coronavirus: Virus Provides Leaps in Scientific Understanding’, BBC News, 10 January 2021, sec. Science & Environment, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-55565284.
 Jeffrey Brainard, ‘Scientists Are Drowning in COVID-19 Papers. Can New Tools Keep Them Afloat?’, Science | AAAS, 13 May 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/scientists-are-drowning-covid-19-papers-can-new-tools-keep-them-afloat.
 UNESCO, ‘Open Access to Facilitate Research and Information on COVID-19’, UNESCO, 7 April 2020, https://en.unesco.org/covid19/communicationinformationresponse/opensolutions.
 Anne E. Bromley, ‘The Old Card Catalog: Collaborative Effort Will Preserve Its History’, UVA Today, 9 December 2019, https://news.virginia.edu/content/old-card-catalog-collaborative-effort-will-preserve-its-history.