How do expert researchers go about assessing the credibility of information on the internet? Not as skillfully as you might guess – and those who are most effective use a tactic that others tend to overlook, according to scholars at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
A new report released recently by the Stanford History Education Group(SHEG) shows how three different groups of “expert” readers – fact checkers, historians and Stanford undergraduates – fared when tasked with evaluating information online.
The fact checkers proved to be fastest and most accurate, while historians and students were easily deceived by unreliable sources.
“Historians sleuth for a living,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, founder of SHEG, who co-authored the report with doctoral student Sarah McGrew. “Evaluating sources is absolutely essential to their professional practice. And Stanford students are our digital future. We expected them to be experts.”
The report’s authors identify an approach to online scrutiny that fact checkers used consistently but historians and college students did not: The fact checkers read laterally, meaning they would quickly scan a website in question but then open a series of additional browser tabs, seeking context and perspective from other sites.
In contrast, the authors write, historians and students read vertically, meaning they would stay within the original website in question to evaluate its reliability. These readers were often taken in by unreliable indicators such as a professional-looking name and logo, an array of scholarly references or a nonprofit URL.
When it comes to judging the credibility of information on the internet, Wineburg said, skepticism may be more useful than knowledge or old-fashioned research skills. “Very intelligent people were bamboozled by the ruses that are part of the toolkit of digital deception today,” he said.
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