How to Avoid Fake News and Be a Good Fact Checker

The internet has opened the floodgates of information. We live in the age of fake news, propaganda, and misinformation. Just take a look at the 2016 presidential election. It’s now harder than ever to determine what one should believe in the digital era. It use to be easier when the internet was relatively new.  A site could be validated with a .org URL and no flashing ads, broken links, and misspellings. But now these sites have stepped up their game and it takes a real professional eye to spot the difference.

A new report investigates how three different groups of “expert” readers – fact checkers, historians and Stanford undergraduates – determine the credibility of digital information. As the authors state, “We observed them as they evaluated live websites and searched for information on social and political issues. Historians and students often fell victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names. They read vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability. In contrast, fact checkers read laterally, leaving a site after a quick scan and opening up new browser tabs in order to judge the credibility of the original site. Compared to the other groups, fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.”

So fact checkers, whose job it is to vet digital information, can teach us a couple things.

  1. Take bearings: This refers to what sailors and aviators do to plot their course. Before diving too deeply in any direction (in this case unfamiliar digital content) make a plan for moving forward.
  2. Lateral Reading: When reading laterally, one leaves a website and opens new tabs along a horizontal axis seeking context and perspective from other sites. Paradoxically by reading laterally a fact checker investigated a sites claims by leaving it

As more and more information floods the internet and finds it’s way to our screen, we need to understand who is behind the information and how it should be evaluated. The web is a maze of misinformation and only by learning how to validate impartial from politically motivated news can we ensure we remain an informed citizenry.

Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information
Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew
Working Paper Stanford History Education Group, 2017

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