Parliamentary libraries are stewards of objectivity and truth for their clients; they were combatting fake news long before that term hit the headlines. In this article, the author explores the concept of fake news, outlines how parliamentary libraries across the country have undertaken initiatives designed to educate their clients and the public about disinformation, and lists some of the procedures researchers in these libraries have adopted to ensure they provide objective and non-partisan information for their communities.
Fake news has been gaining prominence in the media for some years. While fake news is by no means a recent phenomenon, the mutations in traditional media and the popularity of social networks mean that it can proliferate at an alarming rate. Action is so urgent that some countries, like Finland, have launched national campaigns to combat the plague of media illiteracy. Around the world, institutions such as public, academic and school libraries, have undertaken initiatives designed to educate the public about disinformation. In the world of politics, parliamentary libraries play a very important role in the fight against fake news. By providing high-quality documentation and by responding to information and research requests from parliamentarians across the country, legislative libraries in Canada have, for many decades, been helping to protect political decision-makers from the damage disinformation can cause. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the services and initiatives that parliamentary libraries in Canada have put in place in order to raise their users’ awareness of disinformation and to combat the spread of fake news.
Fake news: some definitions
Before we describe those initiatives, it is important to decide how to define fake news; it is a term that, at first sight, may appear vague and imprecise. According to Bouchra Ouatik, a reporter with the Radio-Canada program Les Décrypteurs, six different types of fake news must be identified:
Disinformation: information that is intentionally false;
Malinformation: information that is true only in part, and used incompletely and out of context;
Misinformation: information that was true but is no longer, or that is true, but in a different context;
Urban legends: stories that are false, but that have been around for a long time;
Propaganda: deceptive information provided by a government or interest group; Satire: information that is false but used humorously.
Fake news, therefore, comes in different, often complex and insidious forms. Parliamentary libraries in Canada have established various ways of combating the impact. These include organizing information and training sessions, producing quality publications and research tools, prioritizing objectivity and neutrality, verifying facts through the use of reliable sources, and monitoring the quality of the responses to parliamentarians.
Information and training sessions
Parliamentary libraries across Canada provide information and training sessions of all kinds in order to raise their clients’ awareness of fake news and to increase their media literacy. For example, the libraries in the legislatures of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario provide training on researching the news and media articles in their databases and the electronic resources in their collections. The federal Library of Parliament offers its users four types of information sessions: one on accessing the reference services, one on assistance to the public, one on searching for information, and one on how to monitor media and the news. The Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec provides similar training on the use of its documentary tools, including its databases that allow research on all the debates and journals since 1867.
Information sessions on library services are also held so that parliamentary clients are aware of the extent of the services the institutions provide. In Ottawa, for example, the Library of Parliament has established a Library Ambassador program, which introduces senators, MPs and their staff to the Library’s products and services. The Library Ambassadors take information sessions to the parliamentarians’ offices on the Hill, at times that suit them best. Similarly, when the current legislature began in October 2018, the Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec held short fifteen-minute sessions with members and their staff to introduce, in a concise, efficient manner, everything that the Library can offer.
As well as this training on their resources, legislative libraries are increasingly holding information sessions specifically on the phenomenon of fake news. For two years, the Library of the Ontario Legislature has been providing its users with a workshop on recognizing fake news and on conducting research in reliable news reporting. The Library of the British Columbia Legislature is also considering a training course for the coming year on research advice and literacy; the course will also deal with the subject of fake news. Parliamentary libraries are also holding conferences and inviting experts in combatting disinformation in order to inform and educate their clients. Librarians in public and academic libraries are increasingly teaming up with journalists to educate their users and the public about fake news. This trend can also be seen in parliamentary libraries. In the spring of 2017, the Library of the Ontario Legislature invited three journalists to a series of conferences on fake news. Along the same lines, at the most recent Congrès des professionnels de l’information, employees from the Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec held discussions with representatives of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ) about the #30secondstocheckitout program that the organization has established. This anti-disinformation program was developed in cooperation with l’Agence Science-Presse and has been in existence in Quebec for three years. It sends a volunteer journalist, an FPJQ member, to groups to discuss fake news issues with practical examples.
But library employees do not only provide training; they also contribute by constantly updating their expertise on the subject of disinformation. In the fall of 2017, employees from the Library of Parliament in Ottawa took part in a webinar organized by the Special Libraries Association (SLA) on researching facts in an era of “alternative truth”. The Library of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan has issued a false news alert in order to make sure that its staff is on the lookout for current problems and good practices in the fight against fake news.
Producing quality publications and research tools
Parliamentary libraries produce quality publications and create trustworthy research tools that members and their staff can rely on without hesitation. For example, the Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec designs thematic guides on various parliamentary topics such as commissions of inquiry, studies of budget items, and the history of political parties’ slogans and programs. Its research service also produces a series called Cinq lectures pour comprendre [better understanding with five quick reads], which allows parliamentarians to quickly obtain information on a subject using reliable sources that expert researchers have previously analyzed. We must also point out the indisputable support provided by The Encyclopedia of Québec Parliamentarism, an online reference tool that gathers, refines and publishes essential information on the parliamentary system in Quebec.
In addition to those publications, some parliamentary libraries have also produced information on fake news. In April 2019, the Library of Parliament in Ottawa published an article intended to inform its clients on deepfaking, the technique of modifying videos or audio files in order to spread false or fabricated information. A number of parliamentary libraries have also passed on the information poster issued by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), entitled How to Spot Fake News. This is a concise and effective educational resource that can be used in different situations (Figure 1).
The Library of the Alberta Legislature has developed two posters along similar lines to the ILFA’s in order to make its clients aware of the importance of critical thinking. They are called Stop and Think: Exercise Critical Thinking and Ask These Questions and Fake News: Facts, Truth and Lies. The Library of the Ontario Legislature has produced its own poster, also based on the ILFA’s, called How to Spot Fake News (Figure 2).
Overseas, the research service of the European Parliament has also developed a poster, with the goal of providing users with steps to follow in order to verify trustworthy and truthful information (Figure 3.)
Prioritizing objectivity and neutrality
Neutral and objective work is key to the mandate of all parliamentary libraries. Indeed, “[p]arliamentary libraries share a common mission, specifically to support the democratic process by providing all parliamentarians with confidential, non-partisan information services to support informed debate and effective law-making.” As such, employees from the reference service of the Library of the Ontario Legislature have, in the past, taken part in round tables and training sessions on writing in a legislative setting, and on producing work that is always objective and non-partisan. This training has helped library analysts to remain conscious of the tone used in the institution’s official publications, and to always present a broad range of different positions in the political spectrum as they analyze controversial topics. The importance of objectivity is also repeated in the annual report of the federal Library of Parliament, where political non-partisanship and neutrality are at the centre of the institution’s work:
Our employees work to ensure that all Library information – whether customized research for legislators, curated information, or classroom materials for teachers – is reliable, impartial and tailored to the needs of our clients.
Verifying facts on the basis of scientific evidence and trustworthy sources
Libraries have a long tradition of verifying facts and responses to questions of all kinds. As such, a major part of the work of parliamentary libraries is to research requests for information from parliamentarians. This may take the form of preparing personalized research documents, providing documentation, researching factual information, statistics, scientific evidence, or fact-based studies. The reference services in parliamentary libraries, therefore, have fact-checking mechanisms at their very core.
As a specific example, the strategic plan of the Library of the Legislature of Ontario includes the idea of providing a research platform and tools designed to base its parliamentary work on facts and scientific evidence. In Quebec, fact-based verification and research are integral to the requests received by the reference service of the Library of the Assemblée nationale. Furthermore, parliamentary committees in Quebec can count on the services of the Library’s research officers to assist them through the different stages of their work on public administration issues, so that their work on public policy is based on high-quality, reliable information.
Parliamentary libraries are more aware than any other institutions of the importance of evaluating the sources of information and of knowing where the information comes from. A Cornell University study has shown that people’s beliefs and preconceptions about the sources of information directly influence their inclination to consider the information to be true. Educational work on information is therefore needed so that users are able to recognize their personal biases and to objectively evaluate the source of the information they are given. In this, librarians are trusted allies, trained as they are to rigorously question even the most reputable sources.
Monitoring the quality of responses
In order to ensure the ongoing intellectual rigour of their services, a number of parliamentary libraries have established systems to maintain the quality of the responses given to members and their staff. In Saskatchewan, for example, the reference section of the library in the provincial legislature holds a meeting each morning at which employees discuss the difficult or unusual questions they have received. This allows them to collaborate on the responses they provide, to address challenges, and to confirm the validity of certain sources. Additionally, the reference service relies on the Guidelines for Legislative Libraries, published under the auspices of the IFLA, as a way of measuring the quality of its responses.
At the Library of the Ontario Legislature, all questions to which the research officers respond go through an editorial process whereby a manager revises the responses before they are sent to the users. In addition, reference service managers conduct random checks on the responses sent by the reference librarians. A similar process is in effect in Ottawa, where the information and research service has established quality control programs for the services to the Library of Parliament’s clients. These programs provide employees with methods, guidelines and appropriate tools to ensure that the information and research service is of the highest quality. Where possible, responses to users’ requests must be examined by a supervisor, a manager or a senior librarian before they are sent.
Finally, the reference service of the Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec is currently working on the quality control and standardization of responses. Response templates for different kinds of research have been developed and are currently in use in the service.
In conclusion, parliamentary libraries together provide a valuable resource, whose value increases when it is used by the parliamentary community. They ensure that political decision-makers have high-quality information for their daily work. They are the stewards of objectivity and truth; they were combatting fake news long before that term hit the headlines. While their work is already diverse and multi-facetted, there are still niches to develop in the fight against disinformation. At the dawn of the second decade of the twenty-first century, collaboration and information-sharing between institutions on best practices are still of the highest relevance.
1 The author would like to thank the libraries in provincial legislatures, and the Library of Parliament, for their cooperation and for the information.
2 In the United States, the expression “fake news” was used in a number of newspapers in the 19th century. Source: Rhonda Evans. Fake News Isn’t New: Researching Its History with NYPL’s E-Resources. New York: New York Public Library Blog, 2017.
4 Bouchra Ouatik. “La désinformation en ligne : comment la reconnaître et s’en prémunir?” [Online Disinformation: forewarned is forearmed] Congrès des professionnel.le.s de l’information – Colloque des bibliothèques de l’enseignement supérieur, Montreal, October 29, pp. 8-13.
5 Library of the Assemblée nationale du Québec. “Bases de données : bases de données produites par la Bibliothèque” [Databases : databases produced by the Library], [On line]. (Page consulted: December 20, 2019).
7 Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec [Quebec federation of professional journalists]. “٣٠ secondes avant d’y croire : lutter contre la désinformation” [30 seconds to check it out: fighting fake news], [On line].
17 Legislative Library of Ontario. Legislative Library and Research Services Strategic Plan 2017-2018. Toronto: OLA, 2018.
20 Nicole Eva, op.cit., p. 168.