Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Students (and Many Adults) Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online. Here’s How to Help

Three common mistakes students are still taught
By Sarah McGrew — April 28, 2022 4 min read
Illustration of girl with large magnifying glass over phone with fake news.
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If you are a teacher, you’ve probably heard students share something they learned on TikTok or Instagram and thought, “That doesn’t sound true. … ” Sometimes, those stories are lighthearted and laughed off. Other times, they shape the way students think about the world and their place in it.

For example, students are sharing what they’ve heard on social media about the war in Ukraine. Some stories are true, but some are questionable or completely made up. As community members and soon-to-be voters, students should be able to sort fact from fiction and high-quality sources from propaganda. As teachers, we have an opportunity—even an obligation—to help.

However, such help may not be widespread. In a recent survey by Common Sense Media, fewer than 4 in 10 K-12 teachers in the United States reported teaching students to evaluate online information.

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Even students who do receive such instruction may get advice that was truest when we connected to the internet via dial-up modems:

Websites that end in dot-org are more reliable than dot-coms.

If a site looks professional, it is probably more trustworthy.

The “About” page will tell you everything you need to know about a website.

These and other evaluative shortcuts, what I call weak heuristics, no longer serve us well. Anyone can now register a dot-org domain. A site’s design has no direct connection to its reliability. Authors and organizations can describe themselves however they like, including untruthfully, on their “About” pages. These shortcuts falter because they rely on features that have something in common: They are controlled by a site’s creator. That creator can assemble these features to craft whatever impression they desire.

Yet students continue to rely on weak heuristics to decide what to trust online. How come? As a student I recently interviewed said when I asked why she thought dot-org websites were more reliable than dot-coms: “That’s all I’ve really ever been taught.”

In many cases, students’ assumptions about the internet are no different from those held by adults. When Sam Wineburg and I studied how professional fact checkers, history professors, and college students evaluated information, many of those professors used a similar approach—one that looked a lot like their students’. They stayed on unfamiliar websites and tried to make decisions about what to trust using weak heuristics. They often came up short. It turns out that, unless we’ve been explicitly taught, none of us is very good at evaluating online information.

This means that we need to create opportunities for students to learn to evaluate digital content in K-12 classrooms. It also means that teachers need opportunities to learn themselves. Otherwise, teachers might encourage evaluative shortcuts that could lead students astray. As a researcher and teacher educator, I am committed to understanding and developing ways to support teachers to learn effective evaluation strategies themselves and to plan for how to respond to the approaches their students bring to class. But students aren’t going to stop learning from social media in the meantime. What can teachers do in their classrooms right now?

What can teachers do in their classrooms right now?

First, help students learn to stop relying on approaches that we know can result in flawed conclusions. The approaches students may have relied on (or been taught) in the past are insufficient for the internet we inhabit today. We can demonstrate how these weak heuristics break down.

Students may be taken in by a TikTok video that accumulated thousands of likes and purports to show heart-pounding scenes of the war in Ukraine but was actually filmed in 2014. Students may want to dismiss a website explaining the roots of the Russia-Ukraine conflict because it has a dot-com domain and basic design when, in fact, the site is backed by an authoritative organization and written by an author with relevant expertise. Such examples will help students learn that they cannot assess the reliability of a site or social media post by simply looking at it.

Second, help students replace weak heuristics with stronger approaches. Students should learn that the most efficient way to decide whether to trust online content is, paradoxically, to leave it. In the study with professional fact checkers, professors, and students, we observed that fact checkers invested little time on unfamiliar sites.

Instead, these experts investigated sources by reading laterally: They opened new browser tabs and did a quick search for more information about the source or the claims being made. Teaching lateral reading doesn’t take a long time, and we have evidence that it makes a difference. For example, if a student mentions something they saw on social media, take a few minutes to display the post and discuss how to investigate its veracity. There are a lot of ideas in the free Civic Online Reasoning lessons and assessments, which I helped create with the Stanford History Education Group.

As misinformation about new crises spreads, the urgency of supporting students to evaluate online information grows. Let’s help students learn to make sense of the information that bombards them. A clear first step is to make sure we’re not teaching them shortcuts that we know do not serve them well.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Students Can’t Tell Fact From Fiction Online

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