Anyone who uses the internet to learn about the world faces a challenge: figuring out who’s behind the information they consume. Since you’re reading this on a screen, try this test. Go to occupytheory.org and spend a few minutes determining who’s behind the site. I’ll wait.
You’ve probably spun yourself in circles. You looked at the “About” section at the bottom and learned that the site’s an “online magazine… related to the occupy movement.” But that no more eliminates the possibility that the site is a front group for the Koch brothers than an online version of Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters. You might have Googled “occupytheory” and stumbled on Tidal Magazine. Yet there’s nothing tying Tidal to occupytheory.org. In frustration, perhaps you added “who owns” to “occupytheory.org,” which boomeranged you back to where you started. Your time’s up, and you’ve got little to show.
Take heart: you’re among the throngs of internet users who are often confused when navigating the web on the devices that shape our lives. Had you known to use the website whois.net, you could’ve been spared at least some of this torment. It’s a searchable database where you can look up a site and find who registered it ― then you have to look up who that company or person is.
“The tools we’ve invented are handling us, not the other way around.”
The tools we’ve invented are handling us, not the other way around. The spate of fake news ― the possibility that a group of fake news-writing teens in Macedonia helped tipped the U.S. election ― has precipitated an educational crisis. Fake news is a front-burner issue for schools now, with parents, teachers and citizens clamoring for a response. Schools typically bob to social pressure, so you can count on them to take some type of action. Here are four guidelines they should follow:
1. Make sure teachers are trained on the matter.
A lot has been made of a study we released showing that 82 percent of middle school students struggled to distinguish an ad from a news story. But native advertising doesn’t discriminate by age: in one study, 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference either. So, before we wag our fingers at the kids, let’s make sure their teachers are up to speed.
2. Prioritize the basics that all students need to know.
Type “media literacy” into your browsers, and you’ll be deluged. A typical result is Microsoft’s “Developing Critical Thinking Through Web Research Skills,” which crams enough material into its 36-page PDF for a yearlong course. But harried teachers need a life preserver, not a yacht. What three skills ― not 300 or 30, but three ― for evaluating information should be required for any high school student graduating in the 21 century?
3. Scrap the inadequate guides we currently use.
One of the most ubiquitous web guides is “Five Criteria for Web Evaluation.” The list can be found on library websites from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to Virginia Tech and everywhere in between. It tells students to look for signs of web untrustworthiness ― like spelling mistakes, banner ads and broken links ― and to look for signs of trustworthiness ― like having contact information and a domain ending in .org. Back when we used a dial-up modem, such tips might’ve served a purpose. But in an era of astroturfing, search engine optimization and sophisticated lobbyists posing as academic think tanks, such guidelines deceive students into thinking they know something when, actually, they know little.
4. Teach students about where all information comes from.
We must avoid teaching students that the web is about binaries ― “fake” versus “real,” “hoaxes” versus “non-hoax.” Instead, let’s teach them to ask probing questions about where all information comes from. Neither the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics nor that of the American College of Pediatricians is a hoax. Yet, one conveys scientific research about the likelihood of LGBTQ children being bullied in school, while the other downplays the issue, providing links to groups that urge reparative therapy for gay youth.
In a recently concluded study, we watched Stanford undergraduates dive into web content without pausing to ask where that content came from. On the other hand, the professional fact-checkers we interviewed took a different approach. They read the web laterally, immediately jumping off the original site, opening up new tabs, Googling the name of the organization or its president. Only after taking bearings ― that is, getting a fix on the source of information ― did they return to the content of unfamiliar sites.
“Such guidelines deceive students into thinking they know something when, actually, they know little.”
How should we teach history in an age when spurious claims of “Black Confederates” worm their way into state-approved textbooks and pseudo-historians prop up accounts with photoshopped evidence? How should we teach science when dozens of websites provide scientific “evidence” that vaccinations cause autism or that homogenized milk is dangerous to our health?
What once fell on the shoulders of publishers, editors, librarians and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of anyone who encounters the world via a screen. In this digital Wild West, the ability to evaluate information is to informed citizenship what clean air is to public health. As journalist and scholar John McManus reminds us, in a democracy, the misinformed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed.
In 1822, James Madison understood what was at stake when people confuse solid information with shameless bluff. “A popular government,” he warned, “without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Instead of preparing students to deal with what history, science and every other subject has become in a digital era, schools insulate kids by shutting out the internet or imposing filters that hand-feed them predigested sites. It’s not possible to magically slap filters on every kid’s smartphone, tablet, laptop and home computer. Schools must prepare kids for the real world instead of shielding them from it.