A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Beyond “Fake News”: Teaching a Nuanced Understanding of Post-Truth Rhetoric via Tutorials

Abigail Bakke, Minnesota State University

Jennifer Turner, Minnesota State University

(Published March 24, 2022)

J, a student in a graduate technical communication class, is tasked with developing a tutorial on a topic related to “fake news.” A recent measles outbreak in a local community has the anti-vaccination movement in the news again, so J decides to focus on medical misinformation and the roots of the autism-vaccines myth. In the process, J learns about the library’s information literacy efforts, instructional design concepts, and scientific misconduct.

Several months later, S, a biology student in an undergraduate course, completes the medical misinformation tutorial. Then, S discusses the impact of this and other forms of “fake news” on society with the rest of their class. The class works with their instructor and a librarian to identify practical skills to use when reviewing online information along with conceptual mindsets they can adapt to different information landscapes.

The scenario above represents our vision for this project: a collection of case-based, interactive tutorials that can be used to promote discussions related to problematic information in undergraduate classes across the university.


Traditional information literacy instruction is no match for our post-truth age. At the early undergraduate level, becoming aware of deliberately false information is a necessary starting point. However, at more advanced levels, students must think beyond the catch-all term “fake news” to the complex range of post-truth rhetoric online. These skills involve identifying not only the problematic information itself, but also the larger systems in which it circulates.

Abigail, a professor of technical communication, had been exploring “fake news” with her students in a graduate seminar. Jennifer, Instructional Services Coordinator for the university library, had been designing information literacy tutorials for use across campus. We partnered in efforts to create more thoughtful literacy instruction for a changing media environment. Our project was meant to engage two student audiences in two different ways: first, graduate students in technical communication learned about specific cases of post-truth rhetoric by creating tutorials; second, undergraduates across majors are learning about post-truth rhetoric by completing those tutorials. The tutorials offer undergraduates a chance to engage complex information concepts beyond the traditional single library session or class lesson.

In this article, we offer our perspectives on the partnership and how our students’ understandings of post-truth rhetoric evolved along the way. The narrative represents an in-depth case of one class and its corresponding central project, pulling from published research, course materials, student reflections,[1] and our own reflections. We hope that our story shows the value of engaging post-truth rhetoric in the classroom and that it provides a model for doing so.

Before 2016


I have been researching and teaching concepts that underlie fake news for years. As a first-year writing instructor, I taught units on source credibility and logical fallacies. As a technical communication instructor, I emphasized to students that factual accuracy matters when you are explaining a complex process to nonexpert readers. As a researcher, I have been especially interested in how the online environment complicates our understandings of credibility, and how the very features that make information more accessible and participatory also open the door to misinformation. Early on, I hoped that with enough awareness and regulation, the best of technology could be harnessed and would outweigh the worst. In recent years, however, I witnessed the opposite trend as conspiracies proliferated and politicians systematically undermined trust in the media. It was time to engage post-truth rhetoric in the classroom.


As a librarian who specializes in teaching students how to effectively and responsibly find, evaluate, and use information, I have been researching and teaching about fake news since I started my career without giving it this name. Even before the 2016 elections demonstrated the impact of “fake news” on society, I struggled with how to teach source credibility and evaluation to university students. So many models used by librarians and other educators are based on checklists that oversimplify the evaluation process to simple yes-no questions that look only at the work itself and  ignore the context surrounding the work as well as the evolving digital landscape (Craig). However, I learned the hard way that attempting to engage students with these complexities, while also teaching them other research skills in one-shot library workshops, results in overwhelmed students and glazed-over faces.

In the years before the 2016 election, I was not the only librarian concerned by the impact of these complexities on our culture. Some librarians took up the concept of critical information literacy, which “looks beyond the strictly functional, competency-based role of information discovery and use, going deeper than the traditional conceptions of information literacy that focus almost wholly on mainstream sources and views” (Downey 42). This move to problematize information and encourage critical reflection while teaching skills-based objectives, such as source evaluation, appealed to me, but I had yet to figure out how to engage with critical information literacy within my academic context.

Most of my teaching involves work with entry level students, such as English Composition students in their first semesters of college. However, information literacy is too complex to be encapsulated as only one part of one class. There are many assumptions made by both students and instructors about what students know about information literacy concepts, specifically source evaluation and selection. Students report to their instructors that they learned about the library in another class, so they know how to research. Alternatively, upper-level course instructors assume students learned about finding, using, and evaluating sources in previous courses, so they should already be information literate. These viewpoints do not reflect the findings of multiple research studies that demonstrate many students lack adequate information literacy skills (Downey). Further, they simplify information literacy to a concrete set of skills without considering societal and technological contexts.

Fall 2016-Spring 2018


During Fall 2016, I was working with another librarian to develop Library Services Educational Competencies to guide our department’s teaching efforts. These competencies and outcomes were based in part on the Association of College and Research Libraries’ 2016 Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced the organization’s outdated, more task-based Information Literacy Standards from 2000. The old Standards defined information literacy according to a set of specific abilities needed to find, evaluate, and use information for a defined need. The new Framework broadens the definition of information literacy by describing it in terms of flexible core concepts that can be modified to fit their contexts and maintain relevance as the information landscape and student responsibilities within this landscape evolve. The Framework includes six broad frames, such as “Authority is constructed and contextual,” and “Research as Inquiry” (ACRL 2). The Framework also includes dispositions related to each core concept, such as “develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives” (ACRL 4). These dispositions help describe the affective learning needed when working with complex information systems.

Drawing on the Framework, as well as other libraries’ models, we created our own set of competencies (see Figure 1). This allowed for assessment and helped the library faculty move from older ways of thinking about information literacy to the pedagogical content knowledge required to effectively interact with new and emerging information types.

Competency 1: Use information and your library in order to succeed academically.<br />
Competency 2: Articulate the specific information needed in order to begin academic inquiries and avoid information overload.<br />
Competency 3: Access information using appropriate search tools in order to gather evidence on an inquiry.<br />
Competency 4: Evaluate the quality, usefulness, and relevance of the information in order to determine the appropriateness of a source.<br />
Competency 5: Ethically communicate synthesized and new knowledge in order to complete an academic inquiry.

Figure 1: Library services educational competencies

After the 2016 elections, I saw more than ever the need to revise old ways of thinking about information literacy and the library’s instructional mission. Misinformation intersects with each of ACRL’s Frameworks for Information Literacy (Faix and Fyn). The kairos of the 2016 election cycle bolstered library efforts to and exigence to collaborate with faculty on campus and promote students’ information. As with librarians at most, if not all, colleges and universities, we are eager for opportunities to work with instructors to develop materials to promote information literacy. We are skilled at finding ways to meet student learning needs using available resources but need buy-in and input from other campus faculty to develop materials for curricular use. We would much rather design content we know will be used, rather than spend time developing content we hope will be used.

Throughout spring semester 2017, I worked with a communication studies professor and a psychology professor to develop two interactive online tutorials about fake news and confirmation bias for use in their classes. These tutorials served as a foundation and precursor to the tutorials students would develop in Abigail’s class.

Online tutorials have been shown to be effective and flexible tools for supplementing library instruction (Gonzales; Anderson and Mitchell), and these asynchronous modules are especially useful for engaging students in online courses. The tutorial format offered students the opportunity to interact with content to reinforce learning, while also offering faculty flexibility to include the activity within class or as a graded homework assignment. It also provided me the opportunity to see student responses to assess learning and refine the tutorial. Frequently, librarians struggle to assess the impact of their teaching, since we are rarely the faculty person leading—and grading—course assignments. Finally, we could post the tutorial on our website for students and others to use in self-guided learning.

My work on the initial tutorials continued throughout the next year as I collaborated with faculty to test and refine the initial tutorial content. My evaluations of student responses and feedback from instructors who implemented the tutorials in their classes demonstrated that the modules provided a valuable foundation for students, ideally enhanced by in-class discussions related to the activities. However, I hoped to go deeper with future topics related to “fake news” and dis- or misinformation to reach students in upper-level courses.


My inquiry into “fake news” started in the spring of 2018, when I chose it as the theme for the graduate topics course I was to teach that fall. By that point, I had spent many months baffled at the results of the 2016 election and collecting all manner of think pieces I hoped I could piece together into an answer. Didn’t truth matter anymore? Wasn’t the rest of the country seeing the same news I was? While I wasn’t confident in my own grasp of post-truth rhetoric at that time, I did recognize that talking about rhetoric and information technologies in my classes was more important than ever.

I teach aspiring engineers, medical professionals, IT professionals, and communicators. In their professional lives, they will create information, make decisions based on information, and design technologies that connect others with information.  In their everyday lives, they will share personal information on social media, consume others’ information, read the news, and vote. “Fake news” cuts across academic, personal, and professional dimensions.

I had also been hearing about colleagues doing similar work and thought collaboration could improve students’ experience. I e-mailed Jennifer that spring, asking if there were ways to include her work on fake news in the course. She agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to expand use of existing materials and possibly develop new teaching tools related to misinformation.

Summer 2018


One of my first challenges of planning the graduate course was what to call it. Fake News and Technical Communication? Did that sound too trendy? Do I call it Internet Bullshit, a play on the popular University of Washington course (Bergstrom and West)? Did that sound too provocative? I ended up giving the course a mish-mash name that forecasted the terminology struggle that would run through the whole semester: “Internet BS: Technical Communication in an Age of Facebook and Fake News.” As I would soon discover, the confusion that students, journalists, and I were wrestling with wasn’t confusion over terminology—it was confusion over a concept. Rhetoricians know that words matter, that language is socially constructed, that it evolves, and that it carries layers of meaning. According to Caroline Jack, “The words we choose to describe media manipulation can lead to assumptions about how information spreads, who spreads it, and who receives it. These assumptions can shape what kinds of interventions or solutions seem desirable, appropriate, or even possible” (ii).

I alluded to this terminology challenge in an e-mail to my students the month before class started:

I’m excited to embark on this semester, because I will be learning along with you. Despite having studied communication in online environments for years, I still feel at a loss about the problem of fake news (or propaganda, or bias, or other problematic forms of internet media). At the end of the day, there is no one solution. Our starting point needs to be exploration and understanding—what’s the problem? What about the internet makes it worse? What are some ways to identify, critique, and limit fake news in our roles as technical communicators?

I also continued conversations with Jennifer. At that point, I knew I wanted students to create work for a public audience, not just for me as their instructor.  Client-based or experiential learning has long been used in writing pedagogy as a way for students to practice civic responsibility and consideration of audience needs (Bourelle). We decided that my students would design tutorials based in specific cases of post-truth rhetoric, with an advanced undergraduate audience in mind. As Bruce McComiskey argues, “Writing teachers need to address post-truth rhetoric directly in their classrooms, offering for discussion, analysis, and critique a variety of examples of post-truth rhetoric,” and these tutorials would serve as springboards for those kinds of discussions (42).

Meanwhile, my students and I explored a different theme week to week. Graduate students helped locate information about the latest trends in fake news, while I provided foundational scholarship that would give us a vocabulary for understanding those trends.


As Abigail worked to provide her students a foundation in post-truth rhetoric, I began to think of how her students might help develop higher-level instructional content for the library’s tutorial suite. This content development would provide them an opportunity to gain instructional design experience as they created, revised, and packaged a collection of fake news tutorials. The library has increased efforts in the past several years to develop asynchronous learning tools instructors can use with their classes, but building this collection takes time. Most of our content at that time was aimed at functional entry-level library research. On my own, I would potentially be able to add one more credibility-related tutorial during the academic year. With the help and creativity of the graduate students, we were poised to significantly increase our online resources on this important topic.

Fall 2018


August: Definitions and rhetorical foundations. The graduate course began in the fall semester of 2018. The class was online, with a weekly discussion forum in which students were to engage the readings in preparation for a discussion over videoconference. In the syllabus, I had noted:

We’ll ground our discussion in rhetoric—generally defined as the purposeful use of language to influence (often persuade) others. Rhetoric has gotten a bad rap since thousands of years ago when Plato called it “mere flattery” and “making the worse appear the better cause.” No doubt the internet, social media, and user- generated content have caused Plato’s notion of bad rhetoric to thrive today in ways the ancient Greeks never could have anticipated. However, as Wayne Booth warns, “It is important to escape the reductions of rhetoric to the non-truth or even the anti-truth kinds. The term must always include both the verbal and visual garbage flooding our lives and the tools for cleaning things up” (emphasis mine) (10). The study of rhetoric helps us to critically examine the internet BS we face daily, and to compose our own arguments in thoughtful and ethical ways.

Even today, the term rhetoric comes with negative connotations. Like any powerful tool, rhetoric can be used for malevolent ends; yet, understanding how it works is the first step in combating it. Students read Donald Bryant’s “Rhetoric: Its Functions and its Scope” to see the value of a rhetorical lens for combating internet bullshit. Bryant wrote that rhetoric exists because “the world of human affairs is a world where there must be an alternative to certain knowledge on the one hand and pure chance or whimsey on the other” (407). In other words, rhetoric helps us navigate a world of contingency and nuance, where there are no easy answers.

Like the term “rhetoric,” the term “fake news” has been oversimplified and appropriated in damaging ways, conflating multiple forms of problematic media ranging from innocent misunderstandings to conspiratorial propaganda. Alice Marwick notes another limitation of the term—it is not always news. She argues, “Using the term ‘fake news’ ignores the fact that hoaxes, memes, YouTube videos, conspiracy theories, and hyper-partisan news sites are equally common ways of spreading problematic information” (479).

Given these limitations, the class found the term “post-truth rhetoric” to best describe the phenomenon we were studying. Students had read McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition to get a refresher on the current media climate in which fake news flourishes and to learn how rhetoric and its theories help explain internet BS. McComiskey writes that “in a post-truth communication landscape, people (especially politicians) say whatever might work in a given situation… without any regard to the truth value or facticity of statements” (6). This definition helps show how post-truth rhetoric cannot be eradicated through fact-checking and reasoned argumentation alone.

In the discussion for that week, one student wrote, “I have trouble imagining a rhetorical spectrum without truth or lies. I think it would be helpful to discuss what lies upon either end of a post-truth spectrum in place of those things. Accord and discord, perhaps?” Another student responded:

Maybe the spectrum that we (or politicians and government figures) have shifted to is ‘believable’ on one end, to ‘unbelievable’ on the other end. If that's the new spectrum, it sadly doesn't matter anymore to a lot of people if believable contains misinformation, BS, disinformation, hoaxes, or total fabrications. Since many people don't check facts, it can come down to this: is it something they want to believe?

This thought echoes Bruce Bowles’ description of “anti-intellectual bullshit,” which, “at its core, starts with answers and filters evidence in order to allow for the maintenance of one’s views and beliefs” and “sacrifices inquiry.” As a class in technical communication, a field that values accuracy and reasoning, we struggled with how to respond as professionals to this kind of pseudo-argumentation.

Jack adds another complicating dimension to fake news: intent. Misinformation represents unintentionally inaccurate information, and disinformation represents intentionally deceitful information. Furthermore, according to Jack, while we often think of problematic information as having the goal of changing minds, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the goal is just to create confusion and distrust in media generally. As trust in the knowledge-making institutions in society—academia, journalism, science—is undermined, post-truth rhetoric can more easily fill the void. With these complexities in mind, we talked about the value of analyzing post-truth rhetoric not just on a binary of “true” or “fake” but as a spectrum; further, we discussed adding spectrums such as trustworthy<->untrustworthy or well-intentioned<->poorly intentioned to help understand audiences’ motivations for spreading or accepting certain messages.

September: Information literacy. With the understanding that fake news could not be thought of as a clear-cut, one-dimensional thing (and that framing it that way was in fact a strategy by bad actors to sow distrust in media[2]), we wondered how we should teach the next generations to parse this complexity.

One conclusion the class arrived at was that information literacy needs to be taught in more than just a first-year writing class. Instead, it should be taught in multiple courses, across multiple levels, and in a more critical way. Students shared their own education (or lack thereof) in information literacy. According to one student,

Many students (including myself) were simply taught to avoid Wikipedia and that .org or .edu websites are more credible….Although my generation has grown up with the internet and are functional with it in our day to day tasks, it by no means dictates that we are automatically technologically literate or any better at distinguishing between internet BS than other generations.

Another noted, “It was never officially taught to me, and I think professors may either believe this is something that is assumed or maybe they themselves don’t know how to actually teach students how to properly select sources and evaluate information.”

These students have undergraduate degrees, so it is telling that they cannot recall training in this area beyond simple, decontextualized rules. Of course, information literacy training is not a comprehensive solution. It has, in fact, been critiqued for individualizing the process too much and overlooking larger power dynamics. As Jennifer discussed above, critical information literacy, as a field, attempts to correct for those limitations, but even this model cannot on its own change the political and economic drivers of problematic information (Downey).

Class readings further reinforced that information literacy instruction requires students to understand the larger systemic issues that promote post-truth rhetoric, including the networked nature of information. By network, we mean the “the variety of information that circulates through networks but also … the interdependencies between humans— subjects, researchers, sponsors—and non-human-entities—data, information, algorithms, systems— within research networks” (Craig). As Jacob Craig recounts, fake news creators have gamed existing networks for monetary gain. That problematic information then circulates through multiple platforms and forms of media, making it more difficult to track, unlike most print sources. As Jennifer noted earlier, much information literacy training is outdated, can overlook the variability in credibility across sources, and ignores students’ actual research practices.

Similarly, in writing pedagogy, literacy has been thought of as more than just knowing how to do something, such as writing or using a technology. Beyond this functional literacy, a rhetorically literate student also understands how persuasion operates within technologies and recognizes larger structures that influence communication (Selber).  In the same way that information literacy requires more than completing checklists and fact-checking, digital literacy requires more than knowing how to follow steps; it also entails the ability to question technologies and to use technologies in informed and reflective ways.

Another theme we discussed was that information literacy needs to engage students in examining themselves and how their own biases and perspectives influence how they interpret and trust information. One student reflected, “there’s more to it than evaluating sources. We have to evaluate ourselves as well.” Writing instructors often teach the basics of the rhetorical triangle or rhetorical situation: that the text (logos), author (ethos), and audience (pathos) all interrelate to affect the interpretation and success of the communication. Yet, students often apply that framework to communication as though they are objective analysts. It seems that part of rhetorically minded critical information literacy training should ask students to place themselves within that triangle, as the audience. Instead of only critiquing how audiences are “supposed” to respond to pathos, students should also question how they themselves are feeling about the information. How do their own emotions, beliefs, and biases affect how they interpret the information?

Our course readings and discussions so far had helped students recognize the value in passing on their knowledge to undergraduates. I then introduced the tutorial assignment. The assignment sheet laid out the purpose:

For this assignment, you’ll be studying the complex phenomenon of “fake news” and adapting that information for an audience of undergraduates who need strategies for combating fake news in their personal and academic lives. In completing this assignment, you’ll have the opportunity to think carefully about what fake news is, and you’ll also convey your knowledge to a non-expert audience using an interactive format.

I asked students to consider the library as a client for their projects, which meant becoming familiar with the library’s outcomes and guiding documents. Students were launched into a complex, real project that required them to consider multiple audiences and values. Perhaps most disorienting for the graduate students was that I offered little guidance on formatting. Instead, we would collaboratively develop a style guide of sorts after workshopping several students’ drafts and seeing patterns emerge in terms of the features that worked best.


I met with Abigail’s students for the first time in conjunction with their information literacy unit. During this meeting, I introduced myself and discussed the library’s information literacy initiatives.

During our meeting, I also reflected on how the class readings paralleled ideas shared in library literature. As discussed earlier, librarians have struggled to effectively raise awareness of and teach information literacy since I joined the profession in the mid-2000s. The 2016 elections forced librarians to rethink how information literacy is taught and provided real world examples of how a lack of these skills can impact society. I wanted the students in Abigail’s class to get a sense of how their non-librarian perspectives could help my department, and potentially the library profession, advance our work related to information literacy instruction.

In addition to discussing information literacy from an academic librarian’s perspective, I provided an overview of the tutorial software (SpringShare’s LibWizard) that would be used to house the students’ final projects and gave a brief overview of the instructional design process. Best practices for tutorials include moving through modules step by step so students are not overwhelmed with information at any one point, adding visuals, and giving students opportunities to apply the information right away (Anderson and Mitchell; Gonzales). Therefore, I encouraged the graduate students to include multiple choice and true/false questions throughout their tutorials, rather than just at the end, and to look for other ways to creatively engage undergraduates with their content. This change would help keep students taking the tutorials on task and ensure they were able to check their knowledge acquisition in phases.

Finally, I discussed authorship credit with the students. Students and I agreed that they would be credited individually, with the understanding that I would refine the content for consistency and currency.


October: Speed and reach. By this point, we had discussed how rhetoric gives us a framework for understanding and analyzing communication. But ancient rhetoricians did not anticipate the technological advancements that would make problematic information spread more widely and quickly than ever. While these technologies may be cutting edge, this is not the first time scholars have wrestled with the implications of major technological shifts.

Students read a chapter by Laura Gurak to see how experts have talked about the history of the internet. Gurak identified four “key terms” that help explain “what makes online communication novel, powerful, and significant”: speed, reach, interactivity, and anonymity (30). Students discussed which principles from past research still hold true and which might be added to help explain what makes fake news powerful and significant.

Students found that concepts that help explain the internet can also help explain the worst of the internet, and that the differences were largely of degree rather than of nature. For instance, in terms of “speed” and “reach,” while early research focused on how the technology of e-mail allowed messages to be sent faster and farther than before, new research might focus on virality—how messages, especially via social media, spread exponentially faster. For instance, a study published in Science found that false news spreads faster and farther on Twitter than true news (Vosoughi et al.). While algorithms, bots, and influencers play a role in the spread of false news, as these researchers point out, so do everyday people, showing the relevance of emotion and confirmation bias to discussions of fake news.

While the term “anonymity” helped explain “flaming” back in the day, it can also help explain “trolling” today. Trolling itself is not new, but today its effect can be much broader due to the speed and reach afforded by social media. And while flaming may have been used to describe individual bad behavior, trolling can represent coordinated and strategic campaigns (boyd).  

Students also acknowledged that the internet has not been the great equalizer that some thought it could be in the early days. One student came up with a new key term of “power” to help explain the motivations for creating fake news and the systems that spread it, reinforcing our focus on critical information literacy. Power differences explain who is likely to be targeted in trolling campaigns: marginalized groups (Clinnin and Manthey). It helps explain why platforms are not motivated to curb post-truth rhetoric: “since fake news receives more viewer interest (measured in ‘clicks’) than real news, the financial motivation to publish fake news is greater” (McComiskey 16). Moreover, power is behind the desire for attention or political influence (as with conspiracy sites and propaganda) (boyd).

October-November: More reading and workshopping drafts. Over the next several weeks, we explored several themes to deepen our understanding of post-truth rhetoric.

We read Kevin Brock’s and Dawn Shepherd’s article, “Understanding How Algorithms Work Persuasively Through the Procedural Enthymeme,” to begin thinking about how seemingly neutral technologies like algorithms can nonetheless play a role in persuasion and can contribute to the spread of problematic information. While algorithms may not have been designed to purposely promote fake news, many nonetheless prioritize engagement at the expense of accuracy.

We also read Timothy Laquintano and Annette Vee’s article, “How Automated Writing Systems Affect the Circulation of Political Information Online,” about the extent to which what we see online is shaped by automated systems, such as bots, and the consequences: “the general public may perceive online discourse as more ‘genuine’ than mass media while being largely unaware of the influences of automated writing systems in mimicking ‘genuine’ human discourse” (58). We talked about how user-generated content crystallizes the tensions around credibility online: the same features that allow for the sharing of more diverse perspectives also allow for the sharing of bad perspectives. We explored how pseudo-science and pseudo-medicine, such as climate change denial and anti-vaccination claims, have emerged in user-generated content and gained broader audiences through the technological and human factors addressed above. This range of topics affirms the complexity of the post-truth environment, and the challenge in keeping up with its changes.

The topics also informed students’ tutorial choices. Each week, a different student workshopped a draft. In the assignment, I had provided the following guidance for topic selection:

The purpose of studying a case is to understand a specific example in depth, including its context and life cycle. Case studies help us see how abstract and theoretical concepts play out in more concrete detail. The case you choose to study is up to you, but it should have a relatively definable beginning and end point. I’ve listed possible cases below [Pizzagate, paid protesters tweet, etc.]. Note that the case doesn’t need to be recent, but if it’s several years old, it should be significant enough that it sheds light on the fake news phenomenon of today.

After our early discussions about the complications of the phrase “fake news,” I clarified for students that their topic did not need to be limited to deliberately false news messages. By leaving the topic selection somewhat open-ended, I hoped we would end up with a variety of examples that would help undergraduates distinguish between types of post-truth rhetoric. I also noted that we would identify a unifying theme at the end of the process. Indeed, students chose topics that represented a range of problematic information types, including media bias, edited video clips, and viral tweets.

As I mentioned above, I did not provide guidelines on length or format right away; I wanted us to develop those as a class as we saw what was more and less effective. Ultimately, we settled on some guidelines like this:

Include an introductory slide stating the purpose or outcome of the tutorial, and a forecast of what to expect.
Use a thoughtful mix of question types (i.e., not all open-ended; not all true/false).
Place the reflection questions next to the text or on the slide immediately following.

Figure 2 reflects the template for each initial slide, including overview, objectives, fields to invite student interaction with content, and a corresponding visual.

Screenshot of the first slide of a sample tutorial. Contains fields for name, class name or number, instructor. Has Overview and Objectives for the tutorial. Can be found at https://mnsu.libwizard.com/f/videoediting

Figure 2: Overview slide for "Video Editing and Manipulation" tutorial

The students who went early had to do more significant revision after we standardized the format. At the time, some students expressed annoyance with the extra revision, but by the end, as shown in the Course Wrap-up section below, they saw the value in experiencing a realistic, recursive writing process.

November: Brainstorming themes for the collection. By late November, each student had workshopped a first draft. I reminded the students that one part of the assignment was to contribute to an introduction or other front and back matter for the collection. “We won't know exactly what this should look like until we step back and look at all the tutorials as a whole,” I noted in their discussion prompt for that week. “Therefore, start by reviewing your classmates' tutorials. Jennifer will visit class on Nov. 26 to share her impressions of your drafts, and to guide us in discussing some overall themes. This forum will get you brainstorming individually so you're better prepared to contribute to that discussion.” I asked them to address questions like:

What is the goal of your individual tutorial?
How would you describe the whole collection in terms of purpose, theme, or focus?
How does this purpose align with the library’s Competencies?

First, students noted the breadth of topics. According to one student, “I was impressed by how the class, without the benefit of planning which topics would be covered, came up with such a comprehensive collection.” Despite the range, there were common threads, as a different student noted:

Whether it's regarding bias, fake news, and misinformation, etc., all of our tutorials seem to offer tools and techniques to help students identify different types of problematic information and evaluate it overall. Each of our tutorials relate directly to the six frames of information literacy. They particularly recognize the construct of authority, the value of information, the process of information creation, and research as inquiry. And I'd say the level of the content ranges from Introductory to Intermediate. At times we are simply asking the student to identify examples of a term, or even providing examples. But at other times we are asking students to apply tools and techniques to perform analysis.

These insights helped the class group and sequence the tutorials.


I reviewed each tutorial and provided feedback, praising things I found especially useful and offering ideas for improvement. For example, including a mix of fixed-response and open-ended questions is important for the library’s tutorials. Fixed response questions allow students to see if they understand content, since incorrect answers automatically display a text box that identifies the correct answer and provides a brief explanation. Fixed-response questions are also easy to quickly assess, as the tutorial software tallies responses to these questions automatically. Open-ended questions encourage students to think more deeply about content, apply it to real-life situations, and more thoroughly demonstrate their learning.

In addition, I guided students through a brainstorming activity to identify themes for their collection. I wanted to develop an online “home” for the materials, since without this home, it would be difficult to promote all the tutorials to faculty and students. I used a version of Technology of Participation’s Focused Conversation facilitation technique, which is designed to develop clear, thematic ideas based on input from individuals with differing perspectives on an issue. The Focused Conversation is often used to come to a concrete decision or set of actions (Institute of Cultural Affairs). I modified my facilitation approach to fit the online context.

Focused Conversations usually start with objective questions, which have no right or wrong answers, and are answered in a methodical roundtable manner that encourages all participants to voice their ideas one at a time. Students used a shared document and videoconference software to voice their thoughts about words and phrases related to possible collection titles that students had developed individually prior to class. I asked them what notable themes and terminologies came through as they worked through their own and each other’s tutorials.

We then worked through reflective questions, which helped students evaluate terminology for clarity and broad understanding within an academic community. For example, through this discussion, students confirmed that “fake news” was too narrow a description for the topics contained in the collection but agreed that “post-truth” might not resonate with undergraduate students.

The students then developed an action plan for collaboratively drafting the title, introduction, conclusion, and other supplementary materials for the collection.


Students revised their individual tutorials based on Jennifer’s feedback and worked together to complete the collection in the shared document. Students settled on the title “Beyond ‘Fake News’: Identifying Problems Within Evolving Information Technologies Online” for the collection. The phrase “Beyond ‘Fake News’” had a double meaning for our class: It reflected our desire to help move our culture beyond an environment where truth has little meaning. Yet, in order to do that, we need to also move beyond the simplistic terminology of “fake news” and engage the multiple types of post-truth rhetoric that have contributed to mistrust in information. Figure 3 displays the introduction to the collection.

Screenshot of tutorial collection homepage, including a table of contents and

Figure 3: Tutorial collection homepage

December: Course wrap-up. As students were finalizing their contributions to the tutorial collection, they also reflected on their learning. According to students’ responses, writing and designing the tutorials proved to be an excellent lesson in audience analysis. A theme in the responses was how teaching a complex concept to someone caused them to rethink their typical approach to composing. A student wrote:

Although I am accustomed to [evaluating information], I’ve never considered how to teach it to someone… This is the first time I’ve been challenged to create something educational and interactive beyond research papers or job aids and standard operating procedures. After hearing everyone’s suggestions in my workshop, I started to think less about how I wanted to communicate the information and more about how my audience would best receive it.

Another student commented on the challenge of shifting from a writer-centered approach to an audience-centered approach:

I wasn’t effectively reaching who I wanted to because I was so concerned with making sure I had enough information to cover ‘everything’ so that the user was not missing any points I wanted to convey… I was afraid that if I wasn’t sharing everything I knew, it would seem as though my tutorial weren’t fulfilling its purpose and as though I didn’t put much thought or effort into it.

Writing instructors may be familiar with client-based projects but may not have thought of librarians as collaborators. Library instructional materials are a form of technical communication—texts that do work in the world. In this case, the students’ tutorials are helping to do the work of raising awareness about problematic information trends.

The graduate students also commented on the role of peer support in completing the project. A student said that peer input helped them see what to cut: “We didn’t have the luxury of rambling on for a page or two here and there like some novelists do, just as song writers/poets have to ‘boil it down,’ so does the tutorial writer.” Another noted, “Collaboration and working with peers and our instructor was the biggest help in this entire situation because it helped me to see things I was never going to see…we couldn’t have done [the individual tutorials] without the rest of the class.”

Finally, students reflected on the value of education in our post-truth era. In my concluding note to the class, I wrote,

In this course, we've explored some older concepts from rhetorical theory and Internet Studies - post-truth, trust, credibility, ethos, speed, reach, anonymity, interactivity - and we've applied those concepts to the newfangled technologies that contribute to the spread of post-truth rhetoric - bots, algorithms, filter bubbles, social media, user-generated content. Many of us, myself included, have probably felt disheartened along the way. The ways information can be abused and twisted for power and profit can seem endless. Can we trust anything at all?
The good news is yes, we can. The bad news is that it's not easy to figure out what to trust, especially when so many sources fall in that gray area between factual and fake. But it's more important than ever for us to be aware of and responsive to our post-truth climate.

Students (and I, as instructor) regularly expressed surprise at the new and sophisticated ways that information is manipulated, and the extent and consequences of post-truth rhetoric. If a professor and graduate students trained in communication have something to learn about post-truth rhetoric, then undergraduates in all majors have something to learn. Said one student, “Simply rejecting the concept of ‘fake news’ or defining it as wrong does not make the issue disappear. We need to understand how it works.” Digging into a case study helps students see the larger context in which problematic information is created and spreads.

Spring 2019 and beyond


Once I had the finalized student tutorials, I began work to move them from PowerPoint into our tutorial software. I made an initial pass through each tutorial, editing for some language and tone consistency and modifying some material to better work with formatting and question options available in our software. I introduced a library graduate assistant to the project and developed a plan to work with her to move the tutorials online. The online home for the collection, using the student-generated themes and introductory content, finally went live during Fall 2019. The tutorials will continue to be refined as time permits and as student responses are analyzed to identify opportunities for improvement and clarification.


I began to pilot the tutorials in my undergraduate courses. Preliminary results show that the tutorials were successful; students enjoyed completing them, and they generally felt the information they had learned was useful.

All 16 participating undergraduates[3] in an upper-division technical communication course rated the draft tutorials as very or somewhat helpful. Some of them alluded to their backgrounds in fields like IT which meant they were already familiar with issues like internet scams and bots. However, others noted learning new things, such as that “The language of an article really can have an enormous affect [sic] on the thoughts that people gather from even just reading the title.”

Students reported learning new strategies, such as such as being cautious about emotional news, using fact-checking websites, or “tracking the trail of claims.” Still others recognized the importance of understanding post-truth rhetoric due to personally witnessing the consequences. One student wrote “i was also scammed $700 from a phone scam. I know how devastating it feels when you are scammed off your hard-earned money just like that.” Another wrote, “I have friends I went to high school with, some of which are in the medical field, that still believe [vaccines cause autism].”

Students were asked in some tutorials to consider their own emotional hot buttons or personal biases that might influence how they respond to a headline or to a request for money. Students listed topics like religion, drugs, immigration, gun rights, and even “everything” as influencing their perception of information. While awareness of bias does not in and of itself change beliefs, it is a first step.

Finally, students commented on the usability of the tutorials and suggested small changes to formatting and wording. Overall, students gained context for larger information trends, practiced strategies for approaching information with more caution, and identified and questioned their initial impressions. Most importantly, the tutorials provided the basis for rich in-class discussion. This pilot shows the potential for using the tutorials more widely across campus.


We hope you take away from this article one model of a client-based project that can engage students at multiple levels: graduate or advanced writing students can create materials that inform undergraduates across fields about the networked nature of post-truth rhetoric, virality, and confirmation bias, concepts that print-based approaches to information literacy have been insufficient in addressing. Graduate and undergraduate students learned about the topic of post-truth rhetoric, and the graduation students additionally learned how to reach a specific public audience with this information.

No single class, project, or informational literacy initiative will solve the multifaceted problem of post-truth rhetoric. Yet, there is value in focusing our and students’ attention to specific cases, analyzing how those cases unfolded, naming the strategies and influences at play, and reflecting on what we can learn from the cases. The tutorials are meant to serve as a starting point for discussions in class and beyond. We hope instructors engage these same complexities in their own classes in their own ways.

[1] We received signed consent from students to use their written work pertaining to the project in accordance with Minnesota State University, Mankato IRB protocol #1347582.

[2] A New York Times feature from Nov. 2019 tracked this strategic use of the term, first by Donald Trump in a tweet shortly after the election: “Since Mr. Trump took office, more than 40 foreign governments have invoked the specter of ‘fake news’ to discredit journalists in the United States and abroad” (NYT Editorial Board).

[3] Student responses collected in compliance with IRB.

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