Has someone you know shared an article link via email, Facebook, or another social media website that seems too outlandish to be true? Before liking, favoriting, or re-sharing the article link, did you take a few moments to fact-check it by searching online for other sources which either corroborate or refute the article’s claims? If so, congratulations! Your actions in fact-checking links suggest you have some good digital literacy skills. In this post we’ll highlight several useful, online fact-checking strategies and discuss a recent article which can be used with students to highlight this important digital literacy skill.
Digital literacy is important for everyone to cultivate today. Whether young, middle aged or elderly, we all need to sharpen our skills when it comes to determining if something we read online is factual or not. If you’re online and able to share information, you’re also able to share mis-information. Just as we should take responsibility for the things we say in person to others, we also should to take responsibility for the words and links we share online. This is an important element of “digital citizenship.”
Outlandish and far-fetched headlines get people’s attention, and online that means people are likely to click hyperlinks connected to them. The term “clickbait” has been coined to describe online headlines and links specifically designed to lure people into clicking on them by mis-representing facts or promoting outright lies. According to the English WikiPedia:
Clickbait is a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks. Clickbait headlines typically aim to exploit the “curiosity gap”, providing just enough information to make the reader curious, but not enough to satisfy their curiosity without clicking through to the linked content.
The proliferation of information sources online today continues to blur the lines of journalism and challenge the concept of “trusted voices.” In past generations, news anchors like Walter Cronkite personified the idea of a “trusted news source.” Television news channels from 1947 to 1960 were very limited in number, and in comparison today made up a much simpler media landscape.
Today websites like BuzzFeed challenge the concept of a “news source,” often featuring articles which are considered clickbait by others. Some local as well as national/international news websites now feature “trending articles” which may attract readers but would hardly qualify as “news” by a traditional media outlet like the Associated Press or BBC.
The website Snopes.com claims to be “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” When someone emails you or shares a link, story or statistic your critical mind questions, Snopes (@snopes) is a good website to search to see if its authors have verified or debunked the article or story in question.
While trust is essential in our society, it’s also vital that we cultivate a healthy skepticism and willingness to question ideas and “facts” which are presented to us through different types of media. Author Neil Postman, in his excellent 1969 book “Teaching As a Subversive Activity,” calls this the cultivation of “a personal crap detector.” Certainly an election season, like the one in which we find ourselves in the United States, highlights the need for media outlets to help “fact check” the claims of candidates. FactCheck.org (@factcheckdotorg) is one organization dedicated to that specific goal.
— Wesley Fryer (@wfryer) September 24, 2016
When you stumble across an article or link you think might be factually dubious, try several Google searches to find articles or websites about the same topic. Use an “iterative search strategy,” in which you use different key words and phrases which relate to the subject of your search. Evaluate the results of your search, and then modify your search strategy (keywords) to improve the results.
Recently, a friend shared a link on Facebook to the article, “Archaeologists Dig Up An 800-Year-Old Native American Pot. What They Found Inside Is Changing History.” To Facebook’s credit, below the article a related link was suggested for another article, “The Shocking True Story of That Giant Squash.” The second, suggested link verified some of the facts from the first, but debunked one of the core claims:
…that dating of the clay vessel indicated that the seeds were more than 800 years old and had been lying dormant since the 13th century.
A Google keyword search for “ancient Indian squash” currently yields a variety of different articles relating to this specific story. Out of the first 10 Google search results, several include the “800 year old clay vessel” claim, while others refute or question it.
Some of the domain names of these websites are mainstream media sources which should be familiar (NPR from 23 June 2016 and The Chicago Tribune from 22 June 2014) while others are not and therefore deserve further scrutiny and analysis (Mother Nature Network from 1 Oct 2015 and Off The Grid News from 6 October 2015).
Consider using this news topic and article search with your own students to discuss the digital literacy strategies and lessons which can be employed and gleaned from it. Here are some guiding questions to consider using. Ask your students to brainstorm and suggest others:
- What makes an online source more credible or believable?
- Why is it important to fact-check news articles which seem outlandish or hard to believe?
- Is it ethical for a news website to share information in a headline which is false?
- Do website owners have an ethical obligation to change their headlines if they later learn information is false?
- Do “regular people” have any obligations when it comes to checking facts before sharing information or links online?
- How could you promote more fact checking among your friends and peers?
If you use any of the ideas from this post with your own students, please let me know by sharing a reply on Twitter to @wfryer or with a comment on this post below. We all can play important roles in promoting digital literacy among those people who we interact and share ideas with both in-person and online!
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