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Untangling the web

Students sitting in front of a laptop
A new law requires California K-12 schools to add media literacy lessons throughout the curriculum, the latest of several state laws to help young people learn to judge the credibility of information online. (Photo: iStock)

Untangling the web

As a growing number of states move to require media literacy in schools, Stanford Professor Sam Wineburg shares strategies from a new book.

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, California K-12 schools will be required by law to add media literacy lessons throughout the curriculum – the latest of several state laws recently adopted, in part, to help young people learn to better judge the credibility of information online.

“For years, our research has shown that students struggle to make sense of what they encounter on the internet and social media,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor Emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Education and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, whose research was cited in California’s legislation. “But you can’t blame young people for not knowing how to do something they’ve never been taught.” 

In a new book, Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions About What to Believe Online, Wineburg and co-author Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, detail an array of strategies for assessing the credibility of articles, websites, and videos shared on the internet and social media. 

Here, Wineburg talks about some of these strategies, the power of emotions for detecting misinformation, and why critical thinking isn’t always the best approach for evaluating online content.

GSE Professor Emeritus Sam Wineburg

GSE Professor Emeritus Sam Wineburg

You say that online, “critical ignoring” is just as important as critical thinking. What do you mean by that? 

I’m all in favor of critical thinking and deep reading, but assessing online content requires different skills. You’re not necessarily going to get to the bottom of an unfamiliar website and learn who might really be behind it by spending a lot of time on it, examining it in detail. You need to leave that site and search the broader web for context. 

Close reading and critical thinking also require sustained, focused attention, which is a limited resource in our attention economy. Attention is the brain’s high-octane fuel, and we need to be discerning about how and when we use it. If you’re a cyclist in a big race, it’s great to pedal fast, but you also want to pace yourself, reduce resistance from the wind, maximize your strokes. You want to conserve your energy for when you really need it.    

The same principle holds true when it comes to the information that comes across our screens. Expending attention on dubious sources is a colossal waste of time and energy. It can also be dangerous, exhausting your mind for important tasks and warping your perspective. Critical ignoring can keep you from squandering your attention on digital scams. 

So in cases where something is worth your attention, how do you go about maximizing your effort? 

First, don’t spend more than a minute on an unfamiliar website. Don’t try to evaluate it by relying on what it says about itself on its “About” page. Get off the page, and do a search on the name of whatever you’re investigating – a person, an organization, a company – to see what the rest of the web has to say. Then, resist the temptation to click the first thing that catches your eye. Take in the full set of results to get a sense of the sources. 

In other words, use the web to check the web. The internet is a galaxy of electronically linked resources. If I showed you only one strand of a spider’s web, you’d have no idea what it looks like or how it works. The way you understand a single node in a network is to understand its relationship to other nodes.

“Propaganda is designed to evoke a visceral response, and that emotional reaction can bypass our rational thinking. But emotions are also important for processing information.” — Sam Wineburg

What about when the information is coming from a video shared on social media, where you might not have a source or any context to evaluate? 

The first question to ask yourself is always: Do I understand what I’m looking at? The idea that “seeing is believing” doesn’t apply to videos online, especially short clips. How do you know if it’s actually depicting what it says it is? How do you know whether it’s from a different time, or even a different location? And even if the video is from what it purports to be, do you know what happened before and after the events in the short clip you’ve seen? Who posted it and supplied the description? Can you track down the original, full-length video?

There’s a lot of concern about “deepfake” videos created through AI, but anyone can easily crop existing footage, put a headline on it, change the date, and get millions of views. These are cheap fakes, and we have to worry about them. We don’t realize how easily we can be deceived, especially when our emotions are triggered.

You write in the book that emotions can also operate in our favor when it comes to assessing credibility. How is that? 

It’s true, emotions can work both ways. Propaganda is designed to evoke a visceral response, and that emotional reaction can bypass our rational thinking. But emotions are also important for processing information. 

Feelings tell us to pay attention. If we find something compelling or surprising, that shows us what’s important to check out and where to dig deeper. It’s a signal to stop and go back to what you first saw or read. We make better decisions when we draw on the strengths of both feelings and intellect.

How does the rise of AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, affect the landscape of misinformation? 

These chatbots are built on large language models, which draw on information from the internet to generate words and phrases people tend to say. Their goal is not to be accurate. Their goal is to be convincing.

The text that you get from these models is homogenized – we have no idea where the information comes from. So we need to approach it with the same skills we’d use to evaluate a website or other online content. And because these chatbots can now easily fake the tone and style of a reputable source, it’s more important than ever to investigate broadly.

How much of an impact do you believe media literacy requirements in schools will have? 

These laws are a start in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. If digital literacy is just another thing we dump on teachers’ heads, it won’t work. It needs to be woven seamlessly into the regular curriculum, rather than a patch slapped onto  an already crowded school day. And if teachers don’t feel confident teaching these skills, then no matter how good the curriculum is, it will die on some dusty shelf. The place to start is by investing in high-quality professional development for teachers so they feel capable of helping students navigate an increasingly treacherous digital terrain. 

Faculty mentioned in this article: Sam Wineburg

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