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In a post-truth era, San Francisco can fight back with media literacy

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Companies like Facebook have taken steps to identify and minimize fake news, but San Francisco must lead the charge in stressing the importance of credible information. (Courtesy photo)

As we enter an era in which our nation will be led by an individual who is openly hostile to advances made in civil rights, health care access and environmental policies, and who does not seem particularly interested in the U.S. Constitution, it makes sense that San Francisco is taking the lead on resistance.

From sanctuary city and marriage equality, to landmark environmental laws and providing universal health care to residents, to promoting rehabilitation over incarceration, San Francisco is The City That Already Knows How.

But what other ways can San Francisco lead in resisting an administration led by an open admirer of Vladimir Putin?

We know that control of information is key in repressive regimes. Those of us who have never lived under rule in which journalists and political dissidents are regularly jailed — or “disappear” — may have a hard time imagining that happening here.

But no jails are required when you can make journalists irrelevant by simply drowning them out with fake news, which is especially easy in the age of the internet. Discrediting “the mainstream media” has also encouraged people seek “news” and “information” from sources that simply reflect what they already believe.

In a post-truth era, what can we do to fight back? How can we teach people to weigh the credibility of news sources?

According to a December study by the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans believe fake news “causes a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” Some want the government to step up. Many want social media to do more self-policing, and companies like and Google and Facebook have responded by taking steps to identify and minimize fake news. And consider this: Law enforcement sometimes uses the “news” as a basis for launching investigations. So it does matter.

Interestingly, most people in this same study think they are good at detecting fake news. Eighty-four percent said they feel very confident to somewhat confident that they can sniff out the fake stories. I’m not so sure.

For most of us who aren’t millennials, any media literacy we were taught in school did not include the internet — because it didn’t exist.

Many of us grew up in a time when information as the written word came to your doorstep, could be picked up at the checkout in the grocery store or pulled out of a box on the street. It wasn’t that everything in the newspaper was necessarily 100 percent true or unbiased, but the size, images and colors of the publications were all visual clues.

In the checkout line, most people instinctively knew the tabloid with a photo of aliens holding a press conference with the Pope wasn’t the place to get news. Or maybe the other one, with a picture of Liz Taylor and pill bottles on the cover, wasn’t the most reliable place to find out what the president has been up to.

We need to catch up, because the standards and visual clues are increasingly indistinguishable as they are delivered over the same medium. Others are worried about the possibility of records getting destroyed under the new administration, which embraces climate-change denial; records from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are reportedly being downloaded and preserved in other countries.

Maybe we need more librarians to help lead the resistance on this front. Not only are librarians the ones who keep records from getting destroyed, but they are experts in discerning facts from propaganda. And why not lead from San Francisco?

San Francisco is home to many public libraries, including the Main Library, with many special collections and neighborhood branches. Librarians organize banned book weeks and are on the front lines of fighting government censorship and destruction of records. They fight for privacy. We need them now more than ever.

You may never have heard the term “guerrilla librarians” — originally coined in the 1990s for librarians who refused to toss out books marked for discard — but I bet you can guess which city inspired the term.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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