October 16, 2017

Read less, learn more.

It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s the Spark Notes of a new study on how someone’s reading style online affects whether or not they fall for fake news.

The study, conducted by researchers at Stanford University, monitored a group of 45 Ph.D. historians, professional fact-checkers and undergraduates as they searched websites for information on political issues. It may not be surprising that  fact-checkers performed the best — but the reason why they did so might be.

“You’d think that fact-checkers would do better because they do what we tell kids to do,” Sam Wineburg, an education professor at Stanford and co-author of the study, told Poynter. “The opposite is true. Fact-checkers did nothing of what we tell kids to do.”

Instead of reading an entire web page from top to bottom, fact-checkers frequently scanned the page, jumping in and out of the browser tab to check the validity of a website. That “lateral reading” style enabled them to quickly detect fake news sites at much higher rates than students and historians, who often fell for official-looking logos and domain names.

And that should concern everybody, Wineburg said.

“We need to stop with this mythology that understanding the web is just an issue of critical thinking,” he said. “Very educated people lack an understanding of basic modes of search.”

The study casts doubt on the efficacy of current news literacy efforts at colleges and universities. One common feature are checklists like the CRAAP test that are aimed at helping students determine whether or not information should be trusted. Wineburg and co-author Sarah McGrew write in the article that those are unhelpful because they focus students’ attention on the most easily manipulated parts of a website, such as the logos and URLs.

“There are examples of Ph.D. historians that, when faced with basic questions of who’s behind website, they were rendered paralyzed,” Wineburg said. “We’ve invented a set of tools right now that have the best of us.”

Poynter reached out to the Meriam Library at California State University, Chico — where the CRAAP test was created — but had not received comment as of publication.

Wineburg dismissed concerns about sample size, arguing that it was suitable for the relatively small number of full-time professional fact-checkers and Ph.D. historians working in the United States. He said experts were selected as participants specifically to observe the reading habits of highly educated people.

“We recruited our sample by purposely recruiting people at the tail end of the ability distribution,” he said. “As cognitive scientists, we analyze expertise by sampling people who embody it in order to extract principles that might be teachable to the rest of us.”

The study is limited, but based on the results, Wineburg said there are a few things people could learn from fact-checkers if they want to be better internet consumers.

Take your bearings

In the study, fact-checkers frequently paused on each new site to determine its validity before reading anything. Wineburg likens that process to hiking.

“When you come to an unfamiliar site, do the equivalent of when you’re a hiker and you land someplace,” he said. ”You literally measure the angle (of the sun) and you rotate your compass to where you want to go.”

Before diving into a new webpage, take some time to look it over to make sure it’s legitimate. If it doesn’t pass the smell test, move on.

Practice click restraint

Fact-checkers were able to detect fake news more quickly and accurately because they have an extensive knowledge of web properties like SEO, Wineburg said. 

“They don’t confuse reliability with page rank,” he said. “What fact-checkers do is they exhibit what we call ‘click restraint.’”

Don’t click on the first few things that show up in search engines, or even confine yourself to the first page. Take time to find the information you need from sources you know and trust.

Read laterally

This is at the core of the study’s findings. Fact-checkers found accurate information the fastest because they scanned webpages and Googled them before reading on.

Before taking something online for granted, do a little research on the source. You can never be too sure about a website’s reliability.

“A fact-checker at a major magazine told us that the enemy of fact-checking is hubris,” Wineburg said. “Fact-checkers do the opposite of the duck test. If it looks like a duck, if it squawks like a duck, if it walks like a duck — it might be a duck, but the internet is teeming with infinite creatures.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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