“At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish” (Wineberg et al., “Evaluating Information”).
How are we doing when it comes to recognizing disinformation and navigating the information disorder landscape?
Web Evaluation Skills: Students
In 2016, a few months before the U.S. Presidential election, an influential study on Web literacy was completed by the Stanford History Education Group. Their report—titled “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning”—was concerned with the spread of disinformation online, and how this might threaten our democracy. The study asked nearly 8,000 students (in middle school, high school, and college) to perform five Web evaluation tasks. The results were quite shocking:
- 80% of students couldn’t distinguish “sponsored content” from news articles on websites
- 67% of students failed to recognize potential bias in online information
- 65% of students took online images at face value
- Almost all struggled to evaluate information on social media.
In 2019, as yet another U.S. Presidential election approached, the Stanford History Education Group conducted a similar study of civic online reasoning, this time with a sample of 3,446 high school students. The results?
- 52% of students believed a grainy video shot in Russia constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud (ballot stuffing) in the U.S.
- Two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads (“Sponsored Content”)
- 96% of students did not consider how bias impacts website credibility (for example, ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry).
These studies conclude by describing student’s ability to reason about the information as either “bleak” or “troubling” (Wineberg et al., “Evaluating Information”; Breakstone et al.).
However, as we will see below, this trouble is not just limited to students.
Web Evaluation Skills: “Experts”
In 2017, the Stanford History Education Group conducted a study, “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information.” Here, they assessed the Web evaluation skills of presumed experts: Stanford undergraduates, History professors, and professional fact-checkers. This fascinating study confirmed that even Stanford students and professors with PhDs in History struggled to identify credible sources on the Web.
For example, in one task, the participants were presented with two websites that provided information on bullying, and they were given up to ten minutes to determine which was the more reliable site. One of the websites (American Academy of Pediatrics) was from the largest professional organization of pediatricians in the world, while the other site (American College of Pediatricians) had been labeled a hate group because of its virulently anti-gay stance. The result?
- Only 50% of the historians identified the reliable website
- Only 20% of the undergrads identified the reliable website
- 100% of the fact-checkers were able to quickly identify the reliable website (Note: For effective strategies, see the chapter on Fact-Checking)
Breakstone, Joel, et al. “Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait.” Stanford Digital Repository, 14 Nov. 2019. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Wineburg, Sam, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone, and Teresa Ortega. “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.” Stanford Digital Repository, 22 Nov. 2016. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information.” Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. 2017-A1, 6 Oct. 2017, dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3048994.