How To Think Like A Fact-Checker

Delaney Ruston – Helping our kids find reliable information in the vast swamp of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, and propaganda on the internet and social media right now is crucial.

I recently spoke to Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). SHEG is studying and teaching young people to be discerning consumers of information online. Breakstone told me that what worries him most is “the ease at which information is spread. Anybody who has a digital device has the opportunity to reach millions of people potentially.” 

Disinformation is not new. But the speed at which it spreads is. Young people are struggling to tell the difference between unreliable information and legitimate sources. And here is the thing, so much of disinformation on the internet is from kids and adults reposting. 

This article is about giving our kids skills to better understand what they are seeing and not passing on anything suspect. I write here about evidence-based techniques that are very effective. What is great is that kids and teens are natural questioners, and they don’t like to get duped. So empowering them to help stop these problems and be a part of the solution can resonate with them.

Last year the Stanford History Education Group completed a study of more than 3,000 representative high school students across the United States. The study asked students to complete a series of tasks that relied on information sources from the internet. These tasks were done on school computers, and students were allowed to search online while answering the questions. 

One of the tasks showed the students a Facebook video claiming to document voter fraud in the United States during the 2016 presidential primaries. The videos showed people allegedly stuffing ballots into ballot boxes. The students were asked whether they thought this was a trustworthy source of evidence of voter fraud.

More than half of the students, 52 percent, said that the video, indeed, was strong evidence of voter fraud. They didn’t ask where the video had come from and who posted it on Facebook. In fact, the video came from an anonymous source, and there was no indication that these videos were filmed in the United States. 

Even among the students who rejected the video as good evidence for voter fraud, almost none questioned where these videos came from. They gave no ideal reasons for rejecting the videos saying things like they wanted to see other videos like these, or they wanted there to hear the audio on the videos.

Shockingly, out of the 3,000-plus students who participated, only three students left the website, opened a new tab, and did a search to help them evaluate the source video. They quickly found out that the videos were from Russia and had nothing to do with voter fraud in the United States.

Joel Breakstone and SHEG are figuring out how to teach information validation skills to young people. For this, he is enlisting help from professional fact-checkers who approach validation this way.

What professional fact-checkers do:

  • Leave unfamiliar websites and search for other sources on the internet to validate what is being said or shown.
  • Employ “click restraint.” Instead of immediately clicking on the top of the first page of a search, take 15 or 30 seconds and scan down the page for other search results. They read the snippets, the name of the website, and the title to decide which of these results would be the best starting place for their research. 
  • Three big questions guiding fact-checkers as they evaluate online sources are: Who’s behind this information, and what’s their evidence? 2. What’s the evidence, or is there even evidence being presented? 3. What are other sources saying? So as not to rely on a single source, look for multiple sources, and do they say something similar?

So how do we apply this all to social media? I talked to a junior in high school who told me that she thinks.

“The issue on all social media platforms is that information from various sources appears the same,” she said. “And so there isn’t necessarily a clear way to distinguish between types of sources or the quality of information when you are engaging with it.

“Sometimes on Instagram, you can at least see who the person is who is posting the information if they have a big following and are ‘verified.’”

She said the most common misleading posts she sees are about presidential candidates and Black Lives Matter.

Stanford History Education Group has a comprehensive website with lessons and tips for evaluating information sources on the internet. Watching their videos — and of course, talking about them —  as a family can be a great activity to do together. 

Here is a link to a free online curriculum from the SHEG. This curriculum is not just for teachers — it is for all of us! This is a crucial time to do exercises like these in our homes right now. 

Questions for starting a conversation with your family:

  1. Where do you get your news?
  2. Is there a person, famous or not, that you follow and trust whatever they post?
  3. How do you evaluate information on the internet and social media to make sure it is actually true?
  4. Have you ever been “fooled” by something online? How did they do it, and what did you learn for next time?

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