High schoolers and college students struggle with this as well, and if you make the advertisement a little more sophisticated, Wineburg says, more than half of adults can’t tell it’s marketing. A lot of parents (and, spoiler, teachers) simply don’t know how to determine the reliability of online information. But we often assume our kids do.
Compounding the problem is that our kids get antiquated and bad advice on this subject. The checklists students are given to vet a site’s trustworthiness, advising such strategies as “read the About page” and “assess the article for spelling errors,” are time-consuming and won’t necessarily reveal when information is coming from a biased or outright deceptive source, because the sources of biased information are often sophisticated, designed to pass these checklists. Nearly anyone can create a sophisticated web presence that conceals their identity and objectives.
Digital literacy is bigger than just being able to spot an online hoax, or even write a good research paper. Wineburg wants everyone — adults and future adults — to be able to make well-reasoned decisions at the ballot box and in everyday life. “People are confused about the information they need to make solid civic choices,” he says.
To help all of us learn how to do this better, Wineburg’s team consulted professional fact checkers and then laid out powerful, flexible, and quick tools that can help everyone — parents and kids alike — be smarter consumers of online information.
Students will click one of the first few links. Professional fact checkers won’t. Instead, they’ll look specifically at the URLs under the article titles to see the source of the story and get an overall sense of where this search has landed them — are they seeing sources they know to be reputable? Do the results suggest that this topic is polarizing? Before they click, they’ll scroll to pages 2 or 3 to see if they can find less incendiary articles. Only then will they make a decision on which link to click.
Kids need to know that search engine results are not ranked in order of trustworthiness. The top results are often paid ads, and ranking algorithms are a complicated game (and a story for another day). So before clicking on anything, kids should take a few minutes to read through the search results, to see if results further down offer a different perspective than the ones at the top.
Your kids will be thrilled when you tell them this is not the time for close reading. Wineburg’s study showed that historians and students at elite universities did what most of us do when presented with an article. They read down the page — and were easily deceived — because close reading does very little to help you assess the credibility of a story.
When professional fact checkers land on an article from an unknown source (or are considering clicking on one), the first thing they do is open a new tab and look up the source to find out what other sources are saying about it.
Wikipedia is one place to do that. In the first couple of paragraphs of a Wikipedia article, you can find out that a source is known to be liberal-leaning, or that it’s criticized by scientists. Many adults, including teachers, are wary of the online encyclopedia because it “can be edited by anyone.” That’s partly true (not true for many “locked” entries), but um, welcome to the Internet. Fact checkers will often skim the first few sentences of a Wikipedia entry but then dart to the bottom and harvest more authoritative references.
Wineburg says kids and adults need to know that the internet abounds with “astroturfing” — the deceptive practice of making professional-looking sites that look like they’re run by grassroots groups, when in reality they’re backed by corporations or special interests whose identities are hidden.
For example, yestoaffordablegroceries.com was launched early this year to support a measure that would prohibit a soda tax in Washington state. Their website says “Over 1,400 Washington small businesses, restaurants, cafes, grocers and other community organizations have joined in support of I-1634 to prohibit local grocery taxes. Stand with them to bring fairness to our tax structure, to protect jobs and neighborhood businesses, and to prevent increased taxation on the food and beverages upon which we depend every day.”
Sounds like they’re fighting the good fight, right? Except that they’re funded by the soda industry, which has its own, hidden reasons for wanting to prevent a tax on soda.
On these sites, you may not be able to tell whose perspective the information is coming from by reading the article or the “About” page. You’ve got to leave a site to find out what it really is and where they’re coming from. And be aware that .org does not automatically mean the site is dot-reliable. Many astroturfing sites are able to obtain 501c3 status.
There’s not a right or wrong here. You get to decide which sources you honor with your trust. Wineburg’s point is that reading “laterally” — checking out the source by going to another source — enables you to be informed. You can’t evaluate information with clear eyes if you don’t know what perspective or point of view it’s coming from.