Wiretaps and CRAAP

It’s been four months since the election, and the rhetoric around “truth,” “facts,” and “fake news” doesn’t seem to be dissipating. I wrote about this a few months ago, though I’ve continued to be flummoxed when considering how to address these ideas with students in class, or in conversations with friends. Meanwhile the librarian profession has continued to congratulate itself and claim an expertise in addressing so-called “fake news,” which evidenced itself yet again in a recent article from the Huffington Post that discusses the CRAAP test.

For those of us who have been subjected to the absurdity that is one-shot library instruction, CRAAP is a frequently employed mnemonic for source evaluation, dealing with Currency, Relevance​, Accuracy, Authority, and Purpose. It’s a quick and easy checklist with a funny name, so it gets used in undergraduate classes all over the country by librarians who are short on time, but still want to encourage critical thinking around information.

That said, this kind of checklist solution falls so completely short of meeting the needs of our society right now. Why do I think that? Because CRAAP isn’t about critical thinking–it’s about oversimplified binaries. As students go down the list, they put their source into one of two boxes. The information is either “current” or not, “relevant” or not, and on and on until we get to the point of “fact” or not. And while that kind of simplification might help get us through a one-shot, it’s not going to apply in an authentic information seeking situation, where these ideas of “truth,” “fact,” or “reality” are much more nuanced and complicated.

How about an example? Let’s look at the Trump wiretap case that continues to fester. In his initial tweet, he states:

“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

This claim has subsequently been refuted by people in politics, media, and the government, though many others feel that it is a real story, and worth investigating. Which side is right? Who can we believe? To answer that question, let’s see if the tweet holds up to the rigor of CRAAP:

  • Currency: Trump mentions that he “just found out,” so the news is at least current to him. He also situates the event as taking place in 2016, during the campaign, which makes it germane to the current discussion.
  • Relevance: Amidst discussions of executive power overreach and meddling in the presidential election, this is highly relevant. Likewise, this is a primary source, coming directly from one of the people involved in the story.
  • Accuracy: This person receives daily intelligence briefings. Unfortunately these are classified, so we can’t easily corroborate them at this time, but we have to consider that he might very well have accurate information, leaving us with insufficient evidence to judge otherwise.
  • Authority: Beyond the daily intelligence briefings and team of advisors, he’s the President of the United States. His office imbues him with authority.
  • Purpose: He’s informing the public of misconduct executed by his predecessor. The country and the world have been following his election closely, and this revelation has the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the Obama administration.

Based on this analysis, Trump’s tweet accusing Obama of wiretapping him is a “credible source,” and worth believing. Only thing is… I don’t believe it, and I know I’m not alone. So where does it leave us? What happens when there’s information that CRAAP says is “credible,” but we refuse to believe it?

It’s worth spending some time with that last question, because it calls into question the entire institution of “evaluating sources.” If we insist on oversimplifying, and employing binaries, we’re going to end up in situations where the evaluation says one thing, but we’ll continue to believe the other. I suspect our students end up in that place on a regular basis when we talk about “credibility” these days, though I also suspect these conflicts about information have always been there. And while they aren’t all necessarily politically charged, the current political climate has brought them to the fore.

So what’s next? It’s easy enough to say “don’t use CRAAP,” but how should we talk about these things in class?

For my part, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about the concept of “authority.” Of all the factors considered within CRAAP, the idea that authority is a binary is especially galling. And with each escalation of Trump’s policies, the reinforcement of that binary becomes more and more dangerous.

Consider this statement from a member of Congress. While lambasting journalists and defending Trump, he says that it’s “[b]etter to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” My interpretation of this sentiment is that the state would like to arbitrate what’s true or factual. They are positioning themselves in a binary in which it’s either coming from the government or else it’s fake. In this situation, librarians saying “anything that ends in .gov is reliable” are now complicit.

Instead of this approach, we need to wade into the messiness. We need to openly acknowledge that what we accept as “authoritative,” and subsequently “true,” is a very personal position. Call it a “bullshit detector” or “critical consciousness” or whatever, but our ability to evaluate information, and explain that process to others, has to involve recognizing that we, and the people with whom we interact, are whole human beings, each of us bringing a set of lived experiences that are unique. And those experiences, as much as anything, are going to drive what we accept as “real.”

All the checklists in the world aren’t going to change that.