Real Information Literacy in a Time of “Fake News”

I wish it hadn’t taken a crisis of propaganda and misinformation to demonstrate the worth of our vocation to society at large, but here we are nonetheless.

If your social media feeds or news readers are anything like mine, you can’t get away from the deluge of articles, op-eds, thinkpieces, lamentations, and jeremiads about “fake news.” (In a simpler time, it was called “fiction,” but I digress.) For those of us in the History business, the recent release of the Stanford History Education Group’s study of how college students evaluate information they encounter online has given substance to our worst fears about information literacy (you can read the executive summary here). According to Sam Wineburg, the prominent scholar of History Education and the study’s lead author, “[m]any people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

That’s…not good.

When one considers the decisive impact of “fake news” has on our civic discourse, seen quite clearly in the recent presidential election, it’s evident that we have a real problem on our hands. An uninformed citizenry is the death of democracy. But we, as historians and teachers of history, have a unique opportunity to do something that goes beyond lamentation and works toward solutions. And the general public recognizes that fact, which I see as a real opportunity for us to advocate for ourselves and the role that History plays in a meaningful education. As Kevin Levin argues, “The history classroom is an ideal place in which to teach students how to search and evaluate online information given the emphasis that is already placed on the careful reading and analysis of historical documents. History classrooms that emphasize the critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources…will also provide students of all ages with the necessary skills to evaluate the links that regularly appear in their Twitter and Facebook feeds.”

But Levin’s admonition, with its reference to Facebook and Twitter feeds, points to one of the most significant hurdles we face in working with our students to become discerning and informed consumers of information. Social media is a particularly problematic and difficult field upon which to fight for information literacy. For example, a recent survey conducted by BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found “that people who cite Facebook as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on the platform for news.” The study also found that “a majority of American adults can be fooled by fake news headlines ‘about 75% of the time,’ in part because evaluating headlines is difficult ‘without context on social media platforms.’” And it gets worse: the prevalence of fake news on Facebook (the main culprit here, Mark Zuckerberg’s feeble protests to the contrary notwithstanding) has had a significant effect on Google search results, the go-to method for most Americans looking for information on any subject. And when the information being sought is something like, for example, “did the Holocaust happen?” the effects of propaganda, fiction, and pernicious “fake news” are disastrous indeed.

A big part of the problem, which Wineburg and his colleagues also identify in their study’s report, is that the ways in which teachers of history frame and address information literacy are struggling to keep up with the rapidly-evolving digital landscape–particularly social media. We do a great job getting our students to talk about what makes a journal article “scholarly,” or a primary source document “reliable.” We even have them look at criteria to do at least a ground-level analysis of a website’s reliability. Is it a .edu domain? Can you tell the site’s author and purpose? Can you cross-check its information and verify with other sources? But, often, that’s where our work with information literacy in a digital environment ends. And here’s the problem: Students consuming information–news and otherwise–on social media feeds (and here, they merely reflect the behavior of society at large), largely believe that those sites are reliable. Fake news on a Facebook feed, or at the top of a Google search results list, looks trustworthy by the usual standards students are taught to apply to digital sources.

Moreover, what we know about cognition, memory, and learning points out additional dilemmas. We know now, for example, that what psychologists call “the continued-influence effect” allows for even demonstrably false information to shape one’s viewpoint if it accords with their ideological predilections. Encountering false material and propaganda on a social media feed, especially if it’s liked or shared by friends or family, helps to reinforce things like confirmation bias. Mike Caulfield (whose blog is essential reading for those concerned with digital information and networked learning) sums up how familiarity and confirmation bias work together to produce long-term cognitive effects:

Facebook, with its quick stream of headlines, is divorced from any information about their provenance which would allow you to ignore them. My guess is each one of those headlines, if not immediately discarded as a known falsehood, goes into our sloppy Bayesian generator of familiarity, part of an algorithm that is even less transparent to us than Facebook’s.

Again, that’s…not good.

So what do we do? How do we, as (often overworked and under-resourced) History educators keep up in this rapidly-escalating information literacy arms race? I’d argue that we should be doing the same thing we do when it comes to our pedagogy writ large: do the research, network with colleagues (like right here on this blog!), reflect and adjust, and be critical practitioners of pedagogy. For my part, that means revising my survey course’s first module. In the spring, my survey course will begin with a unit on digital (particularly social media) information literacy. Guided by resources like Howard Rheingold’s  Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, and online work by such essential voices as Bryan Alexander and Audrey Watters, I am crafting a module that will engage my students in, for lack of a better way to put it, not being like the subjects of the Stanford study. There are faculty across other disciplines engaged in this work, too, and there are some excellent examples out there of how “digital literacy” is practiced at the college level, as well as some good tools with which we can begin this conversation in our classrooms.

I briefly struggled with the particulars of this decision, to be honest. Survey courses are already hard enough to manage content-wise without taking a week to focus on this sort of “meta-content.” In the end, though, my commitment to what I think are the essential outcomes of studying History far outweighed my concerns over “coverage.” If my students don’t have the tools to proficiently navigate this fraught and contested digital terrain, then their familiarity with US history will pay limited dividends at best. So this spring, my students and I will commence our exploration of US history by first exploring the environments in which we find, and interact with, the information we use to not just study history, but function as informed citizens in a society that aspires to democracy.

How has the “fake news crisis” affected your approach to information literacy and analytical skills? What can we do in our classes to work with students on information literacy in general, and digital information literacy in particular?



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