“Fake news” in the corona-era

What exactly is fake news? How is it different from the more verifiable terms misinformation and disinformation?

Misinformation is information that is not true, but is believed to be true by the the person who disseminated it.

Disinformation is also false information, but it differs from misinformation in that the person who disseminates it, knows that it isn’t true. It is a deliberate lie, often with malicious intent.

(Hint: you can remember the difference by thinking of the word “diss.Disinformation often attempts to diss someone.)

Fake news has no formally accepted definition – in fact its meaning has changed significantly over the past 4 years. Previously, the term fake news was occasionally used for misinformation, but mainly for disinformation. A famous disinformation example is the “Pizzagate” incident, an attempt to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election in which candidate Hillary Clinton was accused of leading a child-abuse ring based in a Washington, DC pizzeria.

The term gained popularity during this election, but changed character when Trump began describing everything that he didn’t like in the media as “fake news.” One of the first examples of this was when he called reports of low attendance at his inauguration “fake news,” despite factual evidence of the meager turnout.

This makes the term “fake news” confusing and unhelpful, as it was previously mainly used for false information (both mis– and dis-), but is now frequently used for true information that someone doesn’t like. We should therefore avoid using the term “fake news” completely, and instead use “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

So where on the “information disorder spectrum” (as UNESCO calls the range of information pollution) are the many lies being spread about the corona-virus? Much of this is misinformation about the virus’ origin, prevention or treatments, spread by people – even presidents – who believe it to be true. This false information is often partly based on true information that has been twisted or reworked, as opposed to being purely fabricated. Some examples of later-debunked misinformation:

  • Vitamin D can prevent the corona-virus (spread on social media in Thailand)
  • Africans are not susceptible to corona-virus (spread on WhatsApp in Nigeria)
  • Drinking cow urine can cure COVID-19 (spread by a politician in India)
  • 5G towers cause corona-virus (spread in a French blog)
  • Your faith and God will protect you from contracting corona-virus (spread by several religious groups to their followers)
  • Injecting disinfectants can effectively treat the virus (spread by you know who, on live TV)

Some of the false information we hear about the corona-virus however is created and disseminated with malicious intent. Some examples of disinformation and various related conspiracy theories :

  • The US is the source of the virus, and they’re using it as “hybrid warfare” against China and Iran (spread on Iranian TV)
  • North Korea and China conspired together to create the corona-virus (spread on Fox News in the US)
  • The virus is a biological weapon created by the CIA to destroy China’s economy (spread on social media in Russia)
  • The corona-virus came from an accidental leak at a Chinese biological weapon lab in Wuhan (spread in some American news sources)

The spread of both mis- and disinformation can obviously have serious consequences, including injury, death or international conflict. WHO has therefore created a webpage to provide factual health-related information to bust many of the circulating myths about the virus.

Spreading false information is easier than ever – just click SHARE on your favorite social media. Research has shown that false information, because it can be so unbelievable and scary, spreads much faster and deeper than true information.

So what can you do to prevent the spread of false information?

  • Think critically!
  • Vote.
  • Check facts before you share posts on social media, even if you think that the information might truly be helpful to your friends. (There are several fact-checking websites out there, such as www.factcheck.org and www.snopes.com )
  • Be wary of anonymous sources.
  • Use trusted sources of information.
  • Check also the recommendations and advice provided on official government websites or international organizations such as WHO.
  • Tell your friends who spread dubious information to delete it.
  • And if you’re a college student, look at your library’s webpages for useful information about evaluating sources, and attend  courses offered by your wonderful librarians! 🙂

This is a pandemic. It’s affecting the entire world. If we want to defeat it, we have to be smart. So why am I posting this on my blog about information literacy? Because thinking critically is a huge part of being information literate!



First article is (nearly) done!

My data

This poor blog has been neglected for quite a while, since I’ve been concentrating all my efforts on analyzing data and writing the first article for my dissertation. As opposed to a monograph dissertation, I’m doing a “compilation thesis,” which is a series of articles (at least three), together with a summary section (kappa).

The first article, with working title “Knowing and doing: The development and testing of information literacy measures,” has been an enormous effort, as it’s based on data from several different samples, collected at different times. I wrote it, for the most part, together with my advisor Torstein, who has provided excellent guidance throughout this process. Just the right combination of “here’s the answer” and “here’s how to do it yourself.” (Plus a good dose of neurons, logic, experience, and patience!)

If I’d written this article alone, it would’ve been done much sooner, but it would’ve been much worse. I’ve learned so much through this process, especially about how to structure an article based on empirical data, and the logic behind each section. It sounds so easy – Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion – but it was actually quite difficult to separate these sections while preserving readability.

This article could’ve potentially been several, since each of its 3 main goals is nearly enough for an article in itself (especially the first):

  1. “to develop information literacy measures that are applicable across academic disciplines, and that are brief and easy to administer, but still likely to be reliable and to support valid interpretations”
  2. “to determine whether what students know about IL corresponds to what they actually do when finding, evaluating and using sources”
  3. “to help illuminate the question of whether IL should be conceived of as a coherent, unitary construct, or a set of disparate and more loosely related components”

Just look at 2 terms in the first goal: reliable and valid. I had no idea how important these concepts are when developing measurement instruments, how many analyses would have to be performed in order to “conclude” anything about reliability and validity, and how many words would be needed to describe these analyses.

We’ve had to economize with words, which surprisingly, is quite difficult. The journal we’re aiming to publish it in has a limit of 8000 words, and we’re currently at ca. 7900.

The research is churning in my head whether I’m sleeping or skiing. I’m proud of myself for being disciplined, concentrated, and persevering throughout the process of collecting and analyzing the data, and then writing the article. Nothing has come easily – I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished. Luckily, I haven’t had too many other things going on for the past months (social isolation suits me just fine these days!), and could immerse myself in my work without losing track along the way.

The next blog post will be about the importance of information literacy the age of Covid-19. 🙂

My data doesn’t make sense

I’ve spent months collecting and analyzing data from students regarding their information literacy knowledge and skills. For one study, I’ve used a survey to measure their knowledge and two written assignments to measure their skills. The idea is to see if there’s a correlation between these levels, in other words – is what they know reflected in what they do? (multiple regression analysis)

There are all kinds of analyses to perform even before asking that question however, including:

  • is the survey reliable? (using e.g. a split-half reliability test)
  • do survey questions (items) form logical groups (factors)? (factor analysis)
  • are the tests valid? (lots of analyses)

So far, my results in this study are puzzling, to say the least. Correlations that I’d expected to see in my data, do not exist. For example, there’s a negative correlation between the amount of higher education students have had, and their levels of IL. Huh? The more education, the less they know??

As for reliability, whether my survey items produce accurate, reproducible, and consistent results, I get negative results sometimes! (See clip from SPSS below.) How is this possible, when – in my eyes – the survey questions (inside their 3 categories) are related to each other?

I’ve double-checked that my data is coded correctly, so that’s not the problem. It just doesn’t make any sense! It seems as though students have answered totally randomly on the survey. They may know one answer about the critical evaluation of information, but not the next, even though the question is quite similar.

If I could just find ONE meaningful correlation or significant result in this study, I’d be satisfied, but so far I’ve found none. I’m not finished collecting data, of course, so perhaps something meaningful will magically appear in future results. But so far, I’m just perplexed, and yep – frustrated. Argh!

I’ll have to start thinking “outside of the box” in order to interpret these results. Maybe the holiday break will help my brain to reboot? It’s all extremely challenging, but at least I’m learning to do research…

Nagging questions like “Will I be able to publish these seemingly meaningless results?” and “Can I get a PhD even if my data doesn’t make sense?” will hopefully take a place on the back-burner for the time being. There are certain things that I simply can’t do anything about, so it’s best to not focus on them. I’ll just plow on, doing the best that I can.

(And for the astronomically-interested: in two days is the winter solstice. On this day, at its highest, the sun here in Tromsø will be ca. 5 degrees BELOW the horizon. Not even the highest clouds are touched by its light. There’s one more month of polar night.)

How to safely save personal data

I’ve been collecting survey data from students for my research. In some surveys I ask for the students’ names or e-mail addresses. In order to protect the students’ privacy and assure information security, this personal information cannot be saved together with the rest of the collected data.

I therefore created an ID-number for each student, and made a “scrambling key” connecting this ID-number to their personal information. I replaced the students’ personal information with these new ID-numbers in the survey data.

I ended up with two documents – an anonymized data file, and a key with students’ personal data and ID-numbers. These two documents cannot be saved together, because if a hacker finds them, they’ll be able to connect the two and find out how a particular student answered survey questions.

The instructions from the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD) do not specifically state how to hold the documents separate, and neither do UiT’s webpages on information security. Is it sufficient to save one file in Teams/Sharepoint (cloud-based team collaboration software, where files can be stored and shared), and another in OneDrive (the online cloud storage service used by UiT for sharing and editing files)? Both of these systems have the same username and password.

I posed this question to IT support at UiT and received an answer several days later, after they discussed the issue. Since the two cloud storage systems, Teams/Sharepoint and OneDrive, have the same login, they’re not considered separate entities. Someone with my password could compromise these storage locations and gain access to both documents.

IT support’s recommendation was to save the survey data in one of the cloud storage systems (accessible on my PC), and the scrambling key on a memory stick (and only on the memory stick). This  should be locked in a cabinet, physically removed from the rest of the data.

So that’s exactly what I did, and what I recommend to others in similar situations. Better safe than sorry!

My one-year anniversary as a PhD-student!

Here are some honest reflections on my one-year anniversary as a PhD-student here at UiT:

  • I’d hoped and expected to have made more progress in my research by now. I’ve heard many other PhD-students say the same. My supervisors aren’t surprised by my “slow” progress – apparently this is normal. It’s scary that 25% of my time here is already over, and I haven’t even finished writing my first article yet.
  • Every step in the process of doing research involves complex decision-making, based on knowledge and experience.
  • The insight that research plans constantly change and evolve, depending on response rates and other factors that we’re not always in control of, makes me realize the value of crossing bridges as you come to them, and not having too many expectations.
  • I’m not as disciplined with my work as I thought I’d be, and as I have been in the past. I need to plan better and set aside more time for reading and writing. The practical parts of the research, and my compulsory duties this semester, take most of my time. This leaves me with the constant feeling of “I should be doing more.”
  • I’m learning so much about doing research, about information literacy, and about how a university library functions (as opposed to a smaller college library)! All of this will be  useful for me in the future.
  • My motivation comes and goes, but that nagging feeling I had during my first months here – “Did I make the wrong decision?” – bothers me less with time.
  • Doing a PhD is a form of self-torture, with emotional ups and downs that sometimes make me feel as if I’m on a roller coaster. So why am I doing it? To learn! (And to convince myself that, even at my age, I still can!)
  • I love teaching. When I’m with students I feel useful, and that I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s more rewarding than (some aspects of) doing research. My research results will hopefully influence how we teach IL.
  • The fact that I’m earning less as a PhD-student than before bothers me more than I thought it would. Although earning a higher salary in the future was not my main motivation for doing this PhD, I really do hope that it pays off someday.
  • My bond with my supervisors is stronger than I’d anticipated. They give me advice when I need it, we have frequent meetings, and we really enjoy each others’ company. They are absolutely amongst the smartest and nicest people on this planet, and I so appreciate their support, wisdom, brilliance, and constant encouragement.

Disappointing response

Unfortunately, I only got 65 survey responses from the 220 students in the introductory psychology class. These students were the main focus of my research, and I was going to follow them over 3 years, measuring both what they know, do and feel about information literacy (IL). IL instruction is integrated throughout the semester for this class, and I was going to compare them with other students who get more traditional “one-shot” instruction in IL .

But now, since only 65 students participated in the survey, my results will be much weaker statistically. And not only that, there will be very few students left by the end of their three years who are willing to answer the last survey. This is incredibly discouraging, and I felt my motivation dwindle, like air escaping from a balloon. Will I get any meaningful results? Will my research have any impact in the field of IL? Will I be able to publish anything?

I’d put lots of effort into presenting the survey and encouraging the students to take it. I offered prizes (gift cards at Amazon) and waffles, but it wasn’t enough. (I guess they don’t like waffles as much as I do!) What a let-down! 🙁

When it was apparent that participation was low, I was prepared for having to change the course of my research totally, which would’ve meant several months of “wasted” time and effort. But in the meeting with my supervisors yesterday we decided to use the data we have. Perhaps my results won’t have as much power, but they’re sure to be informative and interesting anyway!

As we proceed, plans and goals will change constantly depending on the data we can collect, my supervisors say.  So I’ll just go with the flow and continue trying both to collect as much data as possible and to keep my motivation up. That’s the way it is with research in the real world…

Advice from a recent PhD graduate

Lucy A. Taylor, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Oxford, wrote an interesting career-column article in the Nov. 6, 2018 issue of Nature. With the title, “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD,” this article obviously appealed to me! (Thanks for the tip, Curt Rice!)

Luckily it’s not loo late to implement her suggestions, e.g.:

  • “Invest time in literature reviews.” I did a literate review early on, but didn’t use enough time reading what I’d found. That’s why I missed a recent study where another researcher created a survey very similar to the one I’m making.
  • “’I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it’ is the biggest lie you can tell yourself! Write down everything you do — even if it doesn’t work.” How true! Right now I’m struggling to recount exactly how I performed a factor analysis – I should’ve written a more detailed account of the process as we proceeded.
  • “It’s never too early to start writing your thesis.” In fact I was doing just that when I got the tip about this article, but I probably should’ve written more by now.
  • “Break your thesis down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. You will be more productive if your to-do list reads ‘draft first paragraph of the results’ rather than ‘write chapter 1’.” This is brilliant, and I never would’ve thought of it myself. Hurdles become smaller, making it easier to start on tasks.
  • “The nature of research means that things will not always go according to plan. This does not mean you are a bad student. Keep calm, take a break and then carry on. Experiments that fail can still be written up as part of a successful PhD.” How true that things won’t go as planned. I’m experiencing this right now, in fact. The deadline for collecting survey data from my main informants, a class of 220 students, is in one hour! I’ll be following these students for the next 3 years, so they’re incredibly important to my research, but as of right now, only 65 have answered! 🙁  I was hoping for at least 150! I have a meeting with my supervisors tomorrow, and we’ll decide which changes now need to be made. I have no idea how to proceed from here. (Argh!)

In addition to Taylor’s 20 tips for new PhD students, I have 3 more bits of advice that may also be useful:

  1. Record all of your sessions with your supervisors. When you listen to the recordings later, even if it’s just later on the same day, you’ll realize how much you’ve forgotten, or just didn’t process then and there. This is SO useful, and if you have supervisors like mine, you may find yourself smiling throughout the entire recording.
  2. Strap yourself in, and get ready for the roller-coaster-ride of a lifetime! Ups and downs are the norm. On some days you’ll feel like giving up, but on other days you’ll feel on top of the world. If you hang in there, even on the worst of days, you’ll get through it! (So I’m told?) I’ve talked to people who have “wasted” over a year on experiments that didn’t work out and couldn’t be used, but they still completed their PhD’s.
  3. Realize that being a PhD-student is as difficult psychologically as it is intellectually. Stay positive and try not to worry about things that you have no control over. (That’s what Tove tells me, but not many are as positive as her. 🙂 )

(photo taken today)

So wish me luck with somehow collecting about 90 more survey responses in the next hour! I’ve tightened the straps just in case, and am prepared for the roller-coaster plunge of the year…

Seminar in Svalbard

Just returned from a 3-day seminar in Svalbard, with 58 others in the Department of Psychology (IPS). Since my main supervisor, Tove, is a professor in this department, I also am affiliated with them. I therefore have 2 “homes” – IPS and the university library.

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago far north in the Arctic Ocean, stretching from 77 to 80 degrees north latitude, with more polar bears than people. I felt quite privileged to travel there with IPS. Besides the important aspect of getting to know faculty, staff and other PhD-students, the program also included presentations from the departments’ research groups, an update from the library about new agreements with publishers for open access publishing (thank you, Torstein!), job safety in the Arctic, changes in psychology courses and programs, and other news from the administration.

We also had time for an exciting boat trip to Barentsburg (a Russian coal-mining community), and some delicious meals.

Thank you IPS for the exotic seminar!

With Tove and Torstein on the boat to Barentsburg. 🙂



What I contribute to at UiT, besides my own research

So far I’ve mostly written about my own information literacy (IL) research here at the university, but I’m actually a part of many other groups and activities (see list below). Our meetings and the work we do is educational, rewarding, enriching, challenging and useful. It’s wonderful to be part of such a stimulating learning environment, with such intelligent, articulate and devoted – not to mention NICE – people! 🙂

1) EPIC research group for cognitive psychology. This group is led by my supervisor Tove Dahl. Like other research groups, we talk about our research, discuss problems we’re facing, give feedback to others, work on applications, articles, presentations with each other, etc. Although psychology isn’t my field, I enjoy these meetings, and get a lot of good advice (and sometimes chocolate) from these wise, brilliant researchers.

2) Library “support group” for teaching and learning. We are “teaching librarians” at the Tromsø campus who coordinate IL-teaching at all levels (bachelor, master, phd). The group is responsible for the iKomp MOOC (on IL) and the plagiarism MOOC, both developed by the library at UiT. Led by Helene Andreassen, who is one of the first people from UiT who I met at an international IL conference (and who, together with Torstein, encouraged me to apply for this PhD position!).

3) IL principles and values UiT. A 3-person group, led by Helene Andreassen. My supervisor Torstein Låg, another of those I met long ago at an IL conference, is also a member. We 3 have compared many frameworks and models for IL, and are now making an IL curriculum for UiT. Learning outcomes from this overarching curriculum can be embedded into individual course curricula, assuring that IL is adequately addressed in all university courses.

4) iKomp workgroup. We have responsibility for creating, updating and administrating the iKomp MOOC, a freely available online IL-course taken by many UiT students and others. It’s available in both English and Norwegian. iKomp is obligatory for several studies at UiT, and students must pass an electronic test at the end of the MOOC. The MOOC can be combined also with classroom teaching. The group recently made a version of iKomp for high school students, which will soon be released. Led by Torstein Låg.

5) PSY-0700 is composed of the 4  teachers (plus me) who have an obligatory introductory course for freshman psychology students, called Thinking, learning and writing in higher education. Students learn basic study skills, critical thinking, academic writing, and of course, IL! It’s a “flipped classroom” course, where the students read and view the video lectures online before meeting together for weekly seminars where they do exercises and ask questions. This course prepares students for the rest of their academic studies, and is well-designed and useful. Led by Morten Øvervoll.

6) Creating Knowledge 2020. We’re planning an international IL conference in Tromsø on June 4-5, 2020! (What a way to celebrate my 60th birthday!) We’re finding keynote speakers, calling for papers, evaluating abstracts, finding sponsors, making a budget, planning the program and social events, and all the rest of the million things one does when planning a conference . Led by Helene Andreassen. (Um – Helene, do you ever sleep?)

Are you starting to see why being here at UiT in Tromsø is  intellectually stimulating (and fun) for me? 🙂 Working with brilliant, devoted and enthusiastic people, on a subject which interests and motivates me, is not a bad way to pass my time. 😉