How to distinguish news from fiction even during a war

The challenge of determining the credibility of online news has become much more difficult. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, playing out in real-time on traditional and social media, has shown that anyone can be misled.

A media professor has publicly put himself in the penalty box after retweeting two photos taken out of context about Ukraine and a false report on Russia’s encroachment in Kyiv.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the emotions of war,” said David Carroll, associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design. Photos in two of his retweets are not part of the current crisis, he said, and perhaps he should have tried searching the images on Google first. “I retweeted respected verified people,” he added.

If fake reports can fool someone who understands – and teaches – the possibilities of social media platforms, is there hope for the rest of us?

Fortunately it can be. Researchers from the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University taught high school students in Lincoln, Nebraska to corroborate information found online, with measurable success.

The “side reading” skill they teach is a strategy that has long been employed by fact-checkers in news organizations. It involves comparing the information in a news article or website with key factors such as the source of that information and the perspectives and possible motivations of the people behind it to determine the credibility of the author.

Michaela Schleicher, who teaches AP Government and Politics at Lincoln East High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, where students participated in a Stanford University study of ways to corroborate information on the internet.


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Lincoln Public Schools

The study, expected to be published soon in the Journal of Educational Psychology and funded by Google.org, Google’s nonprofit arm, involved nearly 500 students in government classes at six high schools. Pupils at three of the schools received six lessons in lateral reading over a three-month period; The students of the other three schools completed only the regular curriculum.

Students were tested on their ability to identify credible online content before and after class. All students started with a very low ability to identify credible information. The test results of trained students improved significantly more than the results of the students in the control group. Whether these skills transfer beyond the classroom is unclear, according to the study’s authors.

Sharper reading

In the past, students were taught to check website addresses for credibility. It used to be widely believed that an .org URL, commonly used by nonprofit organizations, contained reliable information; Likewise, a professional-looking website, a strong About Us page, and claims of impartiality or other claims of impartiality may be considered authentic.

But as groups trying to influence politics and political opinion have become more sophisticated in their methods, that guidance no longer holds, said Sam Wineburg, one of the Stanford study’s authors.

In addition to relying on multiple sources, it’s also important to find out if a news source is accountable to readers, such as B. a way to contact writers and editors and a policy and practice for correcting errors, said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is developing differently in Russia than in the United States. Many TV shows use maps and disinformation to shape public opinion, justifying Moscow’s decision to attack its neighbor. Photo composite: Sharon Shi

One assignment in the Stanford study required the students to verify the credibility of an environmental website created by a science-based nonprofit that claimed not to represent any industry. Students researching the organization found that the organization had received funding from the oil industry, which may indicate a penchant for fossil fuels.

As part of the lateral reading class, students were also taught not to rely solely on the first few websites that appear in a search, as search result rankings can be affected by paid advertising and search engine optimization.

Researchers at the City University of New York conducted a cross-reading study with college students that found similar results.

i have dr Wineburg and Joel Breakstone, another author of the Stanford study, asked how lateral reading can be applied to information about the war in Ukraine on social media. They provided several examples, including two from the same Twitter-verified Belarusian news agency account. One was the announcement that retailer H&M had suspended sales in Russia. The other featured a supposed Time magazine cover that visually linked Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.

Simple Google searches revealed that the H&M news was accurate and that the image was not actually from Time. The challenge for someone who spotted them on Twitter was to pause, do a search to look for signs of validity, and then when satisfied, return to Twitter to share or comment . But that requires awareness and impulse control.

Start in schools

Embedding lateral reading lessons in social studies classes is more effective than teaching them as a separate media literacy class, said Jaclyn Kellison, a social studies curriculum specialist at Lincoln Public Schools in the District of Nebraska, who participated in Stanford’s study. Students learn the techniques better when they use them during research, she said.

Students learn media skills like lateral reading better when they use them in social studies research or other subjects, rather than in a dedicated class, educators at Lincoln Public Schools found.


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Lincoln Public Schools

These skills became a priority for the district in 2018 when it began making Chromebooks available to all students.

“If you ask students to open their Chromebooks, you need to give them the skills to use them responsibly,” Ms. Kellison said.

The district had no systematic way to teach students how to validate information until they tried Stanford’s curriculum. Stanford makes all of its lateral reading course materials available to educators free of charge.

One challenge is teaching students to find credible sources for themselves so educators aren’t accused of bias. “Teachers don’t say, ‘Here’s a list of bad sources, good sources, or those with a liberal or conservative bias,'” said Rob McEntarffer, a district assessment and evaluation specialist.

Lincoln now teaches lateral reading to all middle and high school students in the 42,000-student district.

It’s one thing to validate online information while researching for a school assignment and another to apply the same rigor to a provocative tweet or Instagram post, as Professor Carroll, professor of media design, learned.

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What tips do you use to recognize the validity of information you find online?

He said tech companies have a huge responsibility for spreading misinformation. “They don’t want to slow down because speed is the business model,” he added.

Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc., which also operates Instagram, said it has implemented a number of ways to combat the spread of misinformation surrounding the Ukraine war on its platforms, including by downgrading posts on Facebook that Links to Russian state-controlled media include websites and link tags so people know where they lead before clicking or sharing them. Twitter has also announced that it will reduce the visibility of tweets containing content from Russian state-controlled media outlets label them. Twitter also created one own page with reliable information and updates about the conflict.

Fact-checking every Instagram post or tweet that crosses our feeds is unrealistic. But we can exercise restraint. As part of his Twitter mea culpa, Prof. Carroll decided not to tweet for a day.

“I took some time off because that’s what I would do to my kids,” he said.

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Write to Julie Jargon at [email protected]

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