Home Digital Literacy Truth or Consequences: Teaching Students to Assess Web Information

Truth or Consequences: Teaching Students to Assess Web Information


The Web is Polluted With Misinformation and Too Many Are Too Quick to Buy In. Schools Need to Teach Strategies to Discern the Truth.

During a lively discussion on Bryan Alexander's Future Trends Forum on Shindig last week, there was some focus on the challenge of teaching digital literacy to students. During the dialogue, someone mentioned a free eBook published by Mike Caulfield. Caulfield has generously published this excellent resource with a Creative Commons attribution license.

Web-Literacy-CoverThe book is titled, “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers”, and in it, Caulfield offers specific strategies we can use to assess the validity of information published via the Internet. It is full of useful, practical, and at times fascinating techniques. Caulfield refers to it as a “instruction manual to reading the modern Internet”.

Now, some might think, “but today's students use the Internet to look things up all the time, they can find stuff quicker than I can, why do they to learn these techniques?” IT has been my experience that they do. It is my privilege and pleasure to teach a Digital Literacy course at The College of Westchester several times a year. This is my fourth year teaching it, and over the last 8 months or so I rebuilt the course from the ground up. One of the most challenging lessons in the course is about assessing the validity of web data. Even armed with techniques like the “5 W's” and a lesson on assessing data, many of the students do poorly on an assignment that requires them to assess a handful of example sites for their accuracy and authority. I need to figure out how to teach them how to do this better. This book should be a big help.

Facts VS Propaganda, and the Future of Freedom

The book opens with a “Why This Book?” chapter and in it Caulfield writes:

“As many people have noted, the web is both the largest propaganda machine ever created and the most amazing fact-checking tool ever invented. But if we haven't taught our students [techniques to assess the difference] is it any surprise that propaganda is winning?”

We've all heard the dialogue about Fake News this year, and here in the U.S., we've got a master media manipulator as Commander in Chief now, so yeah, propaganda seems to be pulling ahead. Of course, the web is not responsible for this, people in powerful positions have been manipulating public opinion as long as there have been, well, people in powerful positions. But the web is a heck of a tool for manipulating opinion, and it has clearly made the problem far more pronounced. This is why I wish we were teaching web literacy as a required subject starting in middle school, or certainly no later than high school. But that is rarely the case.

The Internet and related technologies have offered me tremendous opportunity, and I am big fan, but as I repeatedly caution students, there is always a bad side that goes with the good side of any new technology. The ‘weaponization' of the web as a propaganda and misinformation machine is a terrifying reality we live with. Powerful people and organizations now have at their disposal a tool with reach and speed far beyond the print and film media that dominated in prior centuries, and they are using it.

Only by becoming more versed in how to quickly and effectively assess information can our students be armed to protect themselves from the onslaught of misinformation. Without this ability, and the awareness of the importance of questioning what they read/hear/see, today's students will be tomorrow's easily manipulated citizens.

Closer to the Heart

The book starts with an introduction of “Four Strategies and a Habit”. (We'll get into the strategies in part 2 of this post, to follow tomorrow.) The habit he refers to is the knee jerk reaction of sharing content that hits us in the gut with emotion. The most talented manipulators know how to press our buttons, and too often we react like lemmings off a cliff*. We need to curb our tendency to strongly react and ignore the need for verification when we come across content that triggers our deepest emotions and leads to what I'll call Twitter-trigger-finger. Caulfield shares, “… researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks. Savvy activists and advocates utilize this flaw of ours, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our heart.”

*Interesting side story here: I just had to use that phrase (“lemmings off a cliff”) even though it doesn't necessarily work well here, because as it turns out, the idea that lemmings jump to their deaths en masse is a great example of how effectively misinformation can spread! Many of have heard of this concept, but the fact is that lemmings do not do this, and there are plenty of high quality sources that will confirm this. And check out one of the sources of this widespread misinformation: none other than the beloved Disney Corporation! This article (along with quite a few other sources you can easily find) states that according to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Disney faked a lemming scene in the 1958 film White Wilderness. “The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers” writes Riley Woodford. How's that for an example misinformation?

PLEASE COME BACK TOMORROW FOR A DEEPER DIVE INTO “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers“!


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