Safeguarding Students in an Age of Disinformation

Think vaccination, not protection…

Posted Nov 27, 2016

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Source: fancycrave1/pixabay

For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off. (Stanford History Education Group, 2016)

In 1969, the same year that mankind first landed on the moon, the first, experimental multisite computer network was created, linking computers at UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.  For the first time, the potential existed for scientists in one place to communicate directly with a computer hundreds of miles away.  Even though that experimental system crashed halfway through the first remote login attempt (definite foreshadowing!), it was arguably the first step toward the Internet as we know it today (http://www.netvalley.com/intval1.html). 

The moon landing got all the publicity that year; this first networking attempt was covered by only a few local papers on back pages.  But the impact of this second, unheralded event on our lives, and our civilization, has grown to be far beyond even that of the first. As of September, 2016, Netcraft, the well known internet tracking company, estimates that there are over 170 million active websites, and information from these sites is, for the first time ever, used by over 50% of the population of the world (http://www.internetworldstats.com/emarketing.htm ). 

Today, unlike just 20 short years ago, you can compare home prices in your town or across the nation, check on potential side effects of the medicine your doctor just prescribed, find out if your car is subject to a safety recall, look for the best vacation bargains, purchase goods from all over the world, and even research the history of the Internet (as we just did)—all from your home computer. 

But to make use of this incredible wealth of information, you have to able to read, and read well; not just be able to decipher words or even comprehend meaning, but also be able to combine and compare information from different sources, and above all, to accurately assess the validity of the information you find and the reliability of the people and places it is coming from.  Because along with all the wonderful information available on the Internet comes a whole lot of misinformation, and even disinformation, from people and organizations who have a vested interest in getting us to believe partial truths and even outright falsehoods.  Such disinformation is a problem not only for individuals, but for our society as a whole; for example, news outlets from Facebook to the New York Times are voicing increasing concerns about the possible impact of “fake news” on the recent U.S. presidential election.

In their just-published report called Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, scholars from Stanford University, one of the birthplaces of the Internet, call attention to this new societal challenge while also, unfortunately, demonstrating that students at all levels are ill-prepared to meet it.  Members of the Stanford History Education Group designed a series of assessments to measure the ability of students from middle school through college to judge the reliability of Internet-style information.  They administered these assessments to nearly 8000 students in 12 different states; students from big and small, well-off and under-resourced, rural, urban and suburban schools, and, as they reported, the results “shocked” them.   

Over 80% of middle school students identified a text-heavy advertisement, clearly labeled as “sponsored content,” as a legitimate news story.  40% of high school students felt that an unsourced photo of distorted daisies, titled Fukushima Nuclear Flowers, was “strong evidence” of the damage done by the meltdown at the Fukishima power plant. Many others faulted it only because it did not include any damage done to animals or humans—only 20% challenged it on the correct grounds that there was no evidence of when or where the photo had been taken, nor of why the flowers were deformed.  When presented with a tweet from MoveOn.org, claiming that, “New polling shows the @NRA is out of touch with gun owners and their own members,” less than a third of university undergraduates noted that the liberal political agenda of MoveOn.org might make them a biased source of information on the NRA and its members. Over half failed to click on the link that led to the actual poll at all, apparently taking the headline in the tweet at face value.  Students performed just as badly on 12 other, similar tasks (a total of five at each level, all drawn from actual web content), leading the researchers to conclude that

Overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak…. they are easily duped.  In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation…. Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there.  Our work shows the opposite.

So, how did we get here, and how can we fix it?  The Stanford group report does not address these questions, except to suggest that we need to draw attention to the problem and incorporate better instruction in what they are calling civic online reasoning (aka information literacy, aka critical literacy) into the curriculum at all levels. 

But Dr. Sam Weinburg, one of the report’s authors, went further in a follow up interview with Kelly McEvers on NPR.  He suggests that one reason students are so unskilled at judging the quality of information and information sources is that they are rarely given the opportunity to do this in school.  Most schools block many social media and other websites – Nancy was recently at one that even blocked Google’s main search engine because it could lead to “unauthorized results.”  For so-called “research” assignments, students are often given a list of five to ten pre-vetted websites to use as their only sources, with the implication that all the information on those sites has already been adjudged “reliable” by the teacher.  No doubt most of such websites are generally reliable; they tend to be along the uncontroversial lines of http://www.nationalgeographic.com or www.britannica.com.  But by prescreening the web content they access in school, we are depriving students of the chance for guided exploration and the experience of forming and testing their own judgments about what information is credible and what is not. Then, as Wineburg points out, “What happens when they leave school and they take out their phone and they look at their Twitter feed?”

Wineburg is not suggesting, nor are we, that eight-year-olds be turned loose on the Internet.  And there is no magic formula we can teach students that will let them easily discriminate between good and bad information online, or reliable and unreliable sources (the old adage that .org sites are reliable no longer holds, if it ever did).  Maybe young students could start by making up their own “fake news” stories and discussing how they tried to make them more believable.  Somewhat older students could be given real articles/websites that address a controversial topic like gun control or coal emissions from multiple points of view as a foundation for discussion and debate, which should include comparing and challenging the credibility and reliability of these sources.  Yet older students could find and bring in sources for themselves on topics the class is looking at, with again the class as a whole or in groups examining the credentials and credibility of these sources in order to develop understanding and arrive at a reasoned stance.  Activities like these should help students learn to ask questions like the following:

1) Who (person or organization) is offering me this information?

--Are they probably well-informed?  Do they have experience and/or credentials that suggest they may know what they are talking about?

--Are they probably truthful?  What is their reputation?  Do they have a known bias?  Do they stand to gain materially if I believe their information?

2) What is the quality of the information itself?

--Is the information clear and consistent, or are parts of it self-contradictory or unclear? Are there multiple grammatical errors that suggest less-than-careful writing?

--Is the information in appropriate detail, or full of vague generalities?

--Are assertions backed up with sound evidence?  Can I check this evidence with other sources?  Does it check out?

3) Does this information make sense? 

--Does it go along with my other knowledge and experience? If not, it may be still be true, but it certainly calls for increased scrutiny…

--Are diverse sites and sources reporting similar information? Again, similar information on other sites doesn’t guarantee validity, but a single report of an alien invasion of California, unnoticed by any other news site for days, is probably false.

--Does it seem just plain unlikely, given the way the world works?  For example, a well-known right wing website recently headlined “UN Backs Secret Obama Takeover of Local Police.”  But our laws just don’t allow for the federal government to take over local police departments, and besides, why would the U.N. care?

The habit of asking such questions will help students do better in school and stand them in good stead as adults, not only in their future careers, which are increasingly likely to involve reading, assessing, and using information, but also whenever they buy a car or go on a diet or vote.

huntlh/pixabay
Source: huntlh/pixabay

It may just be that one of the most important things schools can do for students is not to zealously guard them against exposure to wrong information, but rather to inoculate them with a healthy intellectual skepticism about all information. We can do this by teaching them to question and examine whatever they hear or read, including whatever they hear and read in school, thus providing them with needed experience and supported practice in evaluating information.