Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly
The web is a unique terrain, substantially different from print materials. Too often, attempts at teaching information literacy for the web do not take into account both the web’s unique challenges and its unique affordances.
Much web literacy I’ve seen either asks students to look at web pages and think about them or teaches them to publish and produce things on the web. While both of these activities are valuable, neither addresses a set of real problems students confront daily: evaluating the information that reaches them through their social media streams. For these daily tasks, students need concrete strategies and tactics for tracing claims to sources and for analyzing the nature and reliability of those sources.
The web gives us many such strategies, tactics, and tools, which, properly used, can get students closer to the truth of a statement or image within seconds. Unfortunately, we do not teach students these specific techniques. 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 those fact-checking capabilities, is it any surprise that propaganda is winning?
This chapter is an unabashedly practical quick-start guide for the student fact-checker. It supplements generic information literacy with the specific web-based techniques that can get you closer to the truth on the web more quickly.
The first move is the simplest. Stop reminds you of two things.
First, when you first hit a page and start to read it—stop. Ask yourself whether you know and trust the website or source of the information. If you don’t, use the other moves to get a sense of what you’re looking at. Don’t read it or share it until you know what it is.
Second, after you begin the process and use the moves, it can be too easy to go down a rabbit hole, chasing after more and more obscure facts or getting lost in a “click cycle.” If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, stop and take a second to remind yourself what your goal is. Adjust your strategy if it isn’t working. Make sure you approach the problem at the right amount of depth for your purpose.
Investigate the Source
We’ll go more into this move in the next lesson. The key idea is to know what you’re reading before you read it.
This doesn’t mean you have to do a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics by a Nobel Prize–winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.
This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time and, if it is, help you better understand its significance and trustworthiness.
Find Trusted Coverage
Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint or if it is the subject of much disagreement.
In this case, your best strategy is to ignore the source that reached you and look for other trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. In other words, if you receive an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, the winning strategy may be to open up a new tab and find the best source you can that covers this or, just as importantly, scan multiple sources to see what the consensus seems to be. In these cases, we encourage you to “find trusted coverage” that better suits your needs—more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. We’ll show you some techniques to do this sort of thing quickly.
Do you have to agree with the consensus? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it.
Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media Back to the Original Context
A lot of things you find on the internet have been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people. But what happened before that? Who started it? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real, but the caption is dubious at best. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment supposedly based on a research paper—but you’re not certain if the paper supports it.
In these cases we’ll have you trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.
It’s about Recontextualizing
There’s a theme that runs through all of these moves: it’s about getting the necessary context to read, view, or listen effectively. And doing that first.
One piece of context is who the speaker or publisher is. What’s their expertise? What’s their agenda? What’s their record of fairness or accuracy? So we investigate the source. When you hear a rumor, you should know who the source of it is before reacting to it; similarly, when you encounter something on the web, you need the same sort of context.
When it comes to claims, a key piece of context includes whether they are broadly accepted or rejected or something in between. By scanning for other coverage, you can see the expert consensus on a claim, learn the history around it, and ultimately land on a better source.
Finally, when evidence is presented with a certain frame—whether a quote or a video or a scientific finding—sometimes it helps to reconstruct the original context in which the photo was taken or research claim made. It can look quite different in context!
In some cases, these techniques will show you claims are outright wrong or that sources are legitimately “bad actors” who are trying to deceive you. But even when the material is not intentionally deceptive, the moves do something just as important: they reestablish the context that the web so often strips away, allowing for more fruitful engagement with all digital information.
Building a Fact-Checking Habit by Checking Your Emotions
In addition to the moves, I’ll introduce one more word of advice: Check your emotions.
This isn’t quite a strategy (like “go upstream”) or a tactic (like using date filters to find the origin of a fact). For lack of a better word, I am calling this advice a habit.
The habit is simple. When you feel a strong emotion—happiness, anger, pride, vindication—and that emotion pushes you to share a “fact” with others, stop. Above all, these are the claims that you must fact-check.
Why? Because you’re already likely to check things you know are important to get right, and you’re predisposed to analyze things that put you in an intellectual frame of mind. But things that make you angry or overjoyed, well…our record as humans is not good with these things.
As an example, I’ll cite this tweet that crossed my Twitter feed:
You don’t need to know much of the background of this tweet to see its emotionally charged nature. President Trump had insulted Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, and characterized the tears that Schumer shed during a statement about refugees as “fake tears.” This tweet reminds us that Senator Schumer’s great-grandmother died at the hands of the Nazis, which could explain Schumer’s emotional connection to the issue of refugees.
Or does it? Do we actually know that Schumer’s great-grandmother died at the hands of the Nazis? And if we are not sure this is true, should we really be retweeting it?
Our normal inclination is to ignore verification needs when we react strongly to content, and researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks. Savvy activists and advocates take advantage of this flaw of ours, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our hearts.
Use your emotions as a reminder. Strong emotions should become a trigger for your new fact-checking habit. Every time content you want to share makes you feel rage, laughter, ridicule, or even a heartwarming buzz, spend thirty seconds fact-checking. It will do you well.
The original chapters, Why This Book? and Building a Fact-Checking Habit by Checking Your Emotions by Michael Caulfield, are from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers
- How does the SIFT method compare with the CRAAP Test? In what situations might one be more useful than the other?
- Do you fact-check things you read on the internet? If so, what triggers you to do so, and what is your process? If not, why not?
- Do you think that some people are more likely to trust internet content than others? What do you think makes us skeptical or trusting in that way?
- What’s the risk of people believing what they read on the internet? Is it harmless, or could it be damaging?
- How might the algorithm of a given site (YouTube, Google, Facebook, etc.) reinforce misinformation? Think and discuss it, and then do a little research to learn more. How does this make you feel? What questions or concerns does it raise for you?
- Use SIFT to evaluate a social media post of your choice. It could be a TikTok video, a Facebook post, an Instagram story, a tweet, or something else. Write a paragraph reflecting on the process. What did you learn? Which fact-checking steps were most useful for you? What will you carry forward or continue thinking about in this process?
- Research the terms misinformation and disinformation. What’s the difference? What can we do to be warier of both?
- Caulfield’s open educational resource (OER) textbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers goes into more depth about the practical strategies you can use to check the accuracy of web content.
- Caulfield has also created a fully interactive course to learn these skills in a more active, hands-on way. Highly recommended—you can complete one activity or the whole course, no account needed! Check it out here: Check, Please! Starter Course.