After watching the U.S. Presidential debates, it’s clear the country could really use a non-combative way to discuss issues and disseminate information. Sites like Procon.org do this for national issues, ranging from legalizing marijuana to illegal immigration, but sometimes the most heated political discussions happen on the local scene. Instead of relying on fact-checking websites, the University of Washington started the Living Voters Guide, a site dedicated educating voters on issues and referendums in Washington state.
The site is set up like a pro/con list, with issues and referendums clearly defined and pros and cons from users on either side. It’s an open discussion about the issues in the state’s political system that gives voters a clear idea of their fellow citizen’s views, without all ( or at least most) of the bickering. And here’s the coolest part: voters can request to have statements on the user-generated pro/con lists fact checked by librarians from the Seattle Public Library System within 48 hours.
Not Fact-Checkers, Fact Finders
To get the facts straight, librarians at the Seattle Public Library use the typical tools of their trade: news articles, scholarly research, policy analyses and the Washington State Voters guide. Bo Kinney, Special Collections Librarian, says that a lot of this information is freely available to anyone online, but it may be buried within a lengthy article or report. “We are skilled at finding and evaluating the exact information that is most useful to answer a specific question.”
However, it might not be entirely accurate to call the librarians on the site “fact-checkers.” They are more like on-call information finders. The system set in place at the Living Voters Guide is guided by the people that use it. They ask for topics brought up by others to be fact-checked and the librarians respond with direct research from a reliable source. Fact-checkers do this, too, but can sometimes be guided by entities that have a vested interest in their fact-finding results.
Kinney admits, though, that there are some questions the librarians aren’t qualified to answer. These are usually ones that require legal research or are based on hypothetical or opinion-based claims. In those cases, librarians will point to research materials that might hold answers, and they can spotlight facts within opinions.
“We’re not the final word on what is the truth,” Kinney says. “In fact, we expect that users may add additional information beyond what we are able to find. But we think that our efforts will help support informed discussion of political issues.”
This election year is the first time the service will be offered on the site and will carry over to the California edition in collaboration with the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley.
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