Your child is researching a paper on the Civil War and Googles “Abraham Lincoln slavery.” Among the top results is an article titled “5 things you may not know about Lincoln, Slavery and Emancipation.” The child, who is speaking civilly to you today, asks you if this would be a good source to use. You look and see it’s from History.com. What’s your answer? Are you sure?
It’s a simple question with no simple answer: What makes information trustworthy? For parents who grew up doing research with library card catalogs and encyclopedias, or in the early days of the internet, it’s a challenge to advise kids researching a school paper online. “Stick with reliable sources” is not very helpful advice if you can’t define reliable.
Falling for fake news
You might assume (or at least hope!) your digitally savvy offspring are better equipped than their parents when it comes to filtering the reliable from biased and outright false information online. They aren’t.
“The fact that a kid can text without looking and can make an iMovie does not mean that that child, confronted with news stories from his or her Twitter feed, would be able to separate wheat from chaff,” says Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks professor of education at Stanford, Director of the Stanford History Education Group and author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).
Wineburg’s research team studied 7,804 middle school and high school students to determine their level of digital literacy. Among their findings was that 82 percent of middle schoolers could not tell the difference between a news story and native advertising (aka sponsored content). And 60 percent trusted an image posted on social media at face value — like the (fake) image of a daisy growing in a nuclear zone that pops up on social media feeds every few years.
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.
Scroll before you click: Search results are NOT listed in order of trustworthiness
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.
Ok, but how do you know which sources are reliable?
To determine a site’s credibility or bias, you have to leave the site
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.
Think like a search engine
“If we are going to use our browser as the main portal to the world and information,” Wineburg says, “we have to think like Google.” There are some simple tricks your kids can use to get meaningful, reliable search results.
- Put it in quotes. To search on a contiguous term, like a name, you should search for “Sam Wineburg.” Without the quotation marks, you could get results with “Sam” but not “Wineburg.” Not super helpful.
- Go to Google News (under the search bar in your results, toggle from “all” to “news”) for controversial issues or things you’ve seen on social media that seem kind of outrageous. Google News pulls feeds from publishers and can help weed out unsubstantiated rumors.
- Use Google Scholar for academic subjects. This is place to find peer-reviewed journal articles, citations by other scholarly sources, and whether some dude with a PhD is really considered a thought leader on a topic. (Hint: You’re looking for scholarly articles by said dude and appearances of his work in university syllabi.)
- Restrict by domain. You can limit your Google results to American universities by adding site:edu to your search. Add site:gov to your search to get only U.S. government sources in your results.
- Key words are… key. So choose them carefully. Think about which words will help you narrow down the search so that you get the information you’re looking for. Wineburg quizzed me to see what two words I would search for if I wanted to get only college syllabi in my results. I failed, and so do most other people. (The answer is “office hours.”)
Bookmark fact-checking sites
If your kid sees on social media that actress Jennifer Lawrence died last night, she can go to Snopes.com, a fact-checking, rumor-debunking site, to see if it’s been verified, or check Google News to see if major publishers are reporting on it. Politifact.com, a nonpartisan political fact-checking site, is a good place to check political claims. (Have your kid help you bookmark these sites on your phone for quick access.)
Until you’ve checked a post out (Looked up the source on Wikipedia or checked the claim on a fact-checking site), don’t share it on social media. Model this for your kids to get them into the habit, too. The world doesn’t need garbage spread around.
Explore Wikipedia’s “Talk” section
On controversial issues, this is where kids can see people actually debating what is fact. Wineburg says this is where Wikipedia becomes more powerful than a textbook in understanding how knowledge is cited and debated. “It’s where you see how the sausage is made,” he says. But when he asked 1,000 teachers at a conference, none of them had used it. (How to find it: On a desktop, look up anything on Wikipedia. At the top left, next to the globe icon, you’ll see you are currently in an “article.” Next to it is a tab called “talk.” On a phone, search for Talk:example, where “example” is whatever you are looking up.) This combined with using Wikipedia footnotes for sources is a great way to see the whole picture of a disputed topic.
Take a really short course in social media fact checking, like the one offered by First Draft, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard that uses research-based methods to fight mis- and disinformation online. In minutes, you can learn how the pros use free sites to check out social media claims. Like how to watch a video frame by frame if your kid believes the videos of hawks flying off with toddlers.
Check out the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum from the Stanford History Education Group. A series of free downloadable lessons teach students (and their parents!) these skills and more.
So, what would you tell your child about History.com? Wikipedia shows that History.com, the website of the History Channel, is widely criticized by historians and scientists for its sensational and reality tv-type content. So is their list of Abe Lincoln facts trustworthy? Maybe. But it’s worth vetting them with another source. Knowing the source has been questioned gives you more power in deciding what information to trust.