Fake News Research Guide Draws Ire from Conservatives

UPDATED: March 22, 2017 at 9:38 a.m.

Right-wing news outlets are lambasting the Harvard Library’s online research guide “Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda” for linking to a source that they argue mislabels conservative news and research sources as illegitimate.

The research guide, located on the Harvard Library website, includes a link to another guide titled “Tips for Analyzing News Sites,” published by Merrimack College Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars. While Harvard's guide links to other resources and includes an infographic, Zimdars’s guide details a list of designated “fake news” sites, the majority of which are conservative-leaning. Conservative sources criticized Zimdars’s list when it was originally published, and its inclusion on Harvard’s guide was a particular point of criticism.

Zimdars's guide lists pages such as the Onion, Breitbart News, the National Review, the Independent Journal Review. the Daily Caller, the Drudge Report, and The Washington Examiner, among others.

Conservative media outlets were quick to criticize the inclusion of Zimdars's guide in Harvard’s online research guide. CNS News called the list “strange and contradictory.”

“The Harvard University library is labeling right-leaning media as ‘fake news’ right along with actual crackpot sites,” reads an article from the New York Post, which referred to the list as “phony.” “So much for academic excellence.”

Kent Haeffner ’18, president of the Harvard Republican Club, said that while he believes the guide was “very appropriate for determining something is a legitimate news source,” the inclusion of Zimdars’s list could alienate conservative students.

“It is more slanted against conservatives,” Haeffner said. “It would be a huge disservice to the Harvard community not to have [conservative] perspectives represented in research or in other things simply because they’re on this list.”

Haeffner said the guide conflated fake news sites such as Infowars, which he described as propagating “unsubstantiated claims with no evidence,” with the National Review, which Haeffner described as “a respected conservative opinion website.” Haeffner said he was disappointed that the list did not include Vox and Salon, sites he views as analogous sites to the National Review.

In an emailed statement, Harvard Library spokesperson Kaitlin Buckley said Harvard is committed to providing unfettered access to knowledge.

“The collection of material in no way signals an endorsement of any individual work, but rather reflects our continuing commitment to curating a wide variety of voices, opinions, research findings, and scholarship for the enrichment of our community,” Buckley said.

Amid the criticism surrounding the Harvard Library research guide, the concept of “fake news” has become a salient topic of discussion both on campus and across the country.

“At one level, this is pretty pedestrian: fake news is fake. It’s trivial to define it, but it’s not always trivial to identify it,” Harvard Kennedy School professor Matthew A. Baum said. “We do need to educate people on how to be sophisticated consumers of information, but it’s not entirely clear whether traditional forms of educating people [such as guides] will be sufficient.”

Last year, Baum hosted a conference at the Shorenstein Center to bring together social scientists, policymakers, and representatives from social media outlets to discuss the spread of misleading news in the media.

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