Two readers go online to research whether to vote for a minimum-wage increase in their state. Both land on a site that argues vehemently against a wage hike. It has a .org web address and presents studies from “economists at major universities.” After five minutes, the first reader deems the site trustworthy. In just 90 seconds, the second reader decides to disregard the site as the handiwork of a PR firm working on behalf of the restaurant lobby.
The first reader’s opinion, and maybe even his vote, were swayed by a site whose backing he failed to uncover. This reader needs a tutorial in critical thinking, right?
After watching groups of intelligent adults navigate and flounder on the web, we’ve come to a different conclusion. Often, it’s not more critical thinking that they need. It’s less.
Sure, the ability to analyze complex arguments, wend through reams of data and judge whether the evidence justifies the claims being made will never go out of style. However, the errors we observed often had to do with something more basic. People missed crucial clues about who might be trying to sway their opinion because they imported ways of reading from the world of print ― even though the web plays by different rules.
“People missed crucial clues about who might be trying to sway their opinion because they imported ways of reading from the world of print -- even though the web plays by different rules.”
Our research team observed and documented how three groups of experienced internet users evaluated the trustworthiness of digital sources: fact checkers at top news organizations, historians at four universities, and students at Stanford, a university that rejects over 95 percent of its applicants.
Fact checkers were not only the most accurate, but they made their decisions at a speed that left the other two groups in the dust. How come?
In most cases, what made the difference was set of behaviors, applied almost instantaneously, that distinguished fact checkers’ approach from everyone else’s.
Consider what happened when we asked the groups to evaluate two entries on adolescent bullying on the sites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians. The two organizations couldn’t be more different. The first, established in 1932, is the largest organization of pediatricians in the world, publishes the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics, and maintains a paid staff of 450. The American College of Pediatricians, formed in 2002, is a tiny splinter group that has come under withering criticism for its virulently anti-gay positions, advocacy of “reparative therapy” (methods to “cure” people of homosexuality, outlawed for minors in 13 states), and incendiary posts like one advocating that “P for pedophile” be added to the acronym LGBTQ.
“Fact checkers were not only the most accurate, but they made their decisions at a speed that left the other two groups in the dust. How come?”
The historians and students read the American College of Pediatricians’ entry much as they would read a print article. They commented on its scientific layout, bullet points and scholarly references. They scrutinized the website’s address (noting its .org domain, which they believed conferred legitimacy), consulted the “About” page and remarked on the site’s lack of banner ads ― features that had meaning when we used a dial-up modem to connect to the internet. Only rarely did they leave the site to search elsewhere.
“It’s just meant to be a useful resource for people to learn about bullying,” said one historian. An undergraduate agreed. “It’s very official and very medical, it has references.” She rated the site more trustworthy than that of the 64,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics. Sixty percent of her Stanford peers agreed.
Fact checkers took a different approach. They learned about a site by leaving it.
Within seconds, they opened new windows to search for information about the website’s sponsoring organization. Their first stop was often a site many teachers tell students to avoid: Wikipedia. Here, too, fact checkers had a time-saving habit. They beelined straight to the more authoritative references at the bottom and clicked on those. They understood that “the web” is not a metaphor: To learn about a single node you must see where it fits in a larger network.
“Fact checkers understood that 'the web' is not a metaphor: To learn about a single node you must see where it fits in a larger network.”
When historians and students left a site, they were often stymied by their lack of basic search skills. One historian became flummoxed trying to find out who was behind a site because she put its address in the search bar and was flooded with results from the site itself. Another pressed on multiple links without right clicking, which overlaid window upon window, making comparisons across sites needlessly burdensome. Even students, so-called digital natives, failed to put search terms in quotation marks. Without them, Google looks for words that appear anywhere on the page.
Without these basic skills, you can have all the critical thinking in the world and still tumble down digital rabbit holes.
So, take a lesson from fact checkers: Don’t let your eyes deceive you. When you land on a site offering “nonpartisan” information, forget about the fancy logo, ignore the .org designation, and for heaven’s sake, don’t put your faith in the About page. Take a minute to open up a new tab (better still, several). Search the organization’s name along with a canny keyword like “funding” or “credibility.” And just because you aced the SAT, don’t think you can outsmart the shrewdest ruses on the web, especially about subjects you don’t know. One fact checker told us, “hubris is the enemy of fact checking.” Tape this to your screen.
Will these basic habits eliminate every error? Of course not. But they are certain to take a chunk out of the most common ones. And because we rely on the internet to learn about the issues of the day and decide what to do at the ballot box, eliminating even common errors is a big deal.
Sam Wineburg’s most recent book is Why Learn History When It’s Already on Your Phone, published by the University of Chicago Press. He is a professor of education at Stanford University, where Sarah McGrew is a graduate student.