Keeping Up With… Debiasing and Fake News

Debiasing and Fake News

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Elizabeth Boden.

Elizabeth Boden is a MSLIS Candidate and Graduate Assistant at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, email:


Given the current political climate, it’s understandable that fake news is a major topic among librarians. However, the contemporary focus on helping patrons distinguish legitimate news from fake misses the real problem, of which fake news is only a symptom: cognitive bias. All humans are subject to cognitive biases. In fact, biases are necessary, as they offer shortcuts that allow our brains to successfully process information. [1] The problem is that common biases can lead to errors in judgment and subsequently to societal issues such as polarization, intractability, radicalization… and fake news.

Popular evaluation tests like the CRAAP test can help students and patrons catch egregious examples of fake news. However, the more society becomes ensconced in social media filter bubbles, the less effective the CRAAP test becomes. It struggles to address the desire to only hear certain points of view and to only engage with certain types of stories, and these recursive confirmations of our beliefs lead to the societal issues we’re facing. Therefore, our task must be to practice debiasing strategies at the reference desk and in instructional settings. We all need to evaluate how we interact with information before we can evaluate information.

Common Biases

Cognitive psychologists have defined over 175 cognitive biases. Some of the most relevant and pernicious are confirmation bias, naïve realism, anchoring, and evidentiary bias. Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to seek out evidence consistent with one’s views, and to ignore, dismiss, or selectively reinterpret evidence that contradicts them. [2] Naïve realism occurs when we “assume that our raw perceptions are accurate and unbiased reflections of the world, uncontaminated by our preferences, preconceptions, and interpretations.” [3] Anchoring refers to issue framing and occurs when an initial arbitrary reference point influences subsequent decisions. [4] Finally, evidentiary bias proves that even evidence-based research is not immune. It is split into two smaller biases – technical bias and issue bias. Technical bias refers to cherry-picking elements of a study to believe, while issue bias focuses on the creation of evidence, including what outcomes are looked at and what studies are undertaken. [5] In addition, most people are subject to the “bias blind spot” – we are almost always unaware of our own biases, though we may recognize them in others. [6]

What Can Librarians Do?

Many writers have discussed how to avoid triggering biases like confirmation bias in the classroom, as doing so can inhibit learning. However, there is little discussion on how librarians can go one step further to actively teach reasoning skills that work towards debiasing in the classroom and at the reference desk. In fact, even psychologists are only in the last decade turning their attention to studying debiasing.

There are two main strategies for debiasing: modifying the decision maker and modifying the environment. [7] Techniques to modify the decision maker include: consider the alternative, [8] pre-commitment, [9] active open-mindedness, [10] perspective focus, [11] and understanding persuasive intent. [12] In the context of reference or instructional settings in academic libraries, this might mean:

  • Using small groups to consider alternative points of view for a variety of topics. [13]
  • Having a class engage in a “Dialogue and Deliberation” aimed at gaining understanding and awareness of multiple points of view and increasing open-mindedness.
  • Asking students to make a pre-commitment to consider alternatives. Making a firm commitment to perform an action in a certain situation can transform theoretical willingness to debias oneself into “context specific awareness of the need to do so.” Pre-commitments should be as specific as possible, to avoid students not realizing when the situation arises. [14]
  • Asking students at a reference desk to think of other avenues from which to start their research or points of view to include in their research.
  • Engaging students in a discussion of biases in resources by examining how different events are covered in different papers or how Google search results are manipulated through search engine optimization (SEO). [15]
  • Avoiding engaging directly with controversial topics in the classroom, as it can cause students with other perspectives to disengage. Instead, use the above techniques on less contentious issues or engage indirectly in ways that allow students to make their own leaps of understanding. [16]

Successful debiasing happens when students’ controlled thinking overrides their automatic thinking. This kind of metacognition allows students to monitor their own thoughts and, ideally, allows them to move past the bias blind spot and notice when their biases are coming into play. If the above techniques are used, students should be able to transfer their controlled thinking skills to real-world situations.

Modifying the decision maker debiasing work must be done carefully; studies show that there are potential pitfalls. For example, certain debiasing techniques such as consider the alternative can have the paradoxical effect of creating overconfidence if students can’t think of enough alternatives. Small group work is recommended with instructor coaching. [17]

While individual debiasing techniques are necessary, using them in conjunction with societal and communal techniques that modify the information environment is the most effective strategy. This can be done using choice architecture. Choice architecture in this context is when the infrastructure of an information environment nudges you towards or away from specific types of news stories. [18] Generally, this type of deep structural change cannot be instituted in a reference or instructional setting. However, students can be encouraged to modify their social media communities and to use websites like for their news.

Further Study Needed

Practicing debiasing is crucial for all libraries interested in information literacy. However, there is a great deal more research to be done on the efficacy of debiasing techniques. Academic librarians are uniquely situated to conduct studies of real-world efforts. These future studies will contribute to greater practical knowledge and will aim students towards a less polarized, less intractable, and less extreme future. A new focus on practicing and studying debiasing at academic libraries will allow librarians to meaningfully contribute towards pushing the specter of fake news back from its current prominence in society.


[1] Buster Benson, “Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet,” Better Humans, September 17, 2010.

[2] Scott O. Lilienfeld, Rachel Ammirati, and Kristin Landfield, “Giving Debiasing Away: Can Psychological Research on Correcting Cognitive Errors Promote Human Welfare?” Perspectives on Psychological Science 4, no. 4 (July 2009): 391. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01144.x

[3] Ibid.

[4] Emma R. Norman and Rafael Delfin, “Wizards under Uncertainty: Cognitive Biases, Threat Assessment, and Misjudgments in Policy Making,” Politics & Policy 40, no. 3 (2012): 371. doi:10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00356.x.

[5] Justin O. Parkhurst, “Appeals to Evidence for the Resolution of Wicked Problems: The Origins and Mechanisms of Evidentiary Bias,” Policy Sciences 49, no. 4 (December 2016): 379. doi:10.1007/s11077-016-9263-z.

[6] Norman and Delfin, 373.

[7] Soll, Jack B., Katherine L. Milkman, and John W. Payne., “A User’s Guide to Debiasing,” In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making, ed. Gideon Keren and George Wu (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2015): 926, accessed March 10, 2017, doi:10.1002/9781118468333.

[8] Hirt, Edward R. and Keith D. Markman, “Multiple Explanation: A Consider-an-Alternative Strategy for Debiasing Judgments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, n. 6 (December 1995): 1079-1080, accessed March 30, 2017, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.6.1069.

[9] Beaulac, Guillaume, and Tim Kenyon, “The Scope of Debiasing in the Classroom,” Topoi (May 2016): 5, accessed March 30, 2017, doi:10.1007/s11245-016-9398-8.

[10] Lilienfeld et al, 393.

[11] Aczel, Balazs, Bence Bago, Aba Szollosi, Andrei Foldes, and Bence Lukacs, “Is It Time for Studying Real-Life Debiasing? Evaluation of the Effectiveness of an Analogical Intervention Technique,” Frontiers in Psychology 6, article 1120 (August 4, 2015): 3, accessed March 9, 2017.

[12] Metzger, Miriam J., and Andrew J. Flanagin, “Credibility and Trust of Information in Online Environments: The Use of Cognitive Heuristics,” Journal of Pragmatics 59, part B (December 2013): 216, accessed February 22, 2017, doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.07.012.

[13] Beaulac and Kenyon, 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wilkinson, Lane. “LOEX 2017: Teaching Popular Source Evaluation in an Era of Fake News, Post-Truth, and Confirmation Bias,” Sense & Reference, June 2, 2017.

[16] Wilkinson.

[17] Beaulac and Kenyon, 6.

[18] Vydiswaran, V. G. Vinod, ChengXiang Zhai, Dan Roth, and Peter Pirolli, “Overcoming Bias to Learn about Controversial Topics,” Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology 66, no. 8 (August 2015): 1670, accessed January 22, 2017, doi:10.1002/asi.23274.