Misinformation and misconceptions have always been a part of our lives. However, since 2016 misinformation and orchestrated “fake news” on the Internet and social media has added dimensions and intensity that we have not seen in the past. That’s why I’m conducting research to help educators and parents understand the problem and help provide students with tools to identify and refute fake news and misinformation.
Misconception vs. Misinformation
At CEHD’s Reading and Language Lab, we have been studying misconceptions for more than a decade, and observed the problem evolving and worsening. We’ve shifted from the focus of misconceptions to misinformation when the World Economic Forum declared massive digital misinformation as one of the main threats to our society.
Prior to 2016, we were focused on studying misconceptions, generally meaning information that was at one time considered to be true but later determined to be false. However, the current climate of fake news is quite different; it consists of false information deliberately created to cause harm and manipulate worldviews, political views, elections, and big crowds. Now that we live in a decentralized, information-driven society, we are all susceptible to misinformation as many of us do not receive our information through gatekeepers like mainstream newspapers and network television broadcasts.
Critical Thinking in the Information Age
We live in a fast-paced society. Much of the world’s information is at our fingertips and we make quick decisions all the time. Research on memory and the brain shows that, when we are making fast decisions, those judgments are based on intuition, emotion, and gut feelings. Psychologists call this “System One” thinking. Wherever we engage System One, we don’t exert much control.
To guard against misinformation, we need to adopt a more critical mind. Simply slowing down and taking a more deliberate approach makes us much less susceptible to misinformation. Using this slower “System Two” thinking engages our critical mind, takes more time, and helps us better determine the credibility of the information and articles being presented.
Five Techniques for Identifying Fake News
We have been trying to teach critical thinking and problem solving to our students for a long time. We need to adopt a model of media literacy and develop strategies to teach even very young children how misinformation is created, introduced, and distributed. Following our work and others, here are five practical tips for identifying fake news.
- Read past the headline
Keep reading to explore the content further. Headlines are meant to be sensational and interesting, not necessarily accurate. Most people stop at the headline, and they share information just based on the headline. Consider that the headline is trying to attract your attention, not necessarily convey accurate information.
- Evaluate the source of the information
Ask the following questions: is the source well known? Is there an author of this piece of information? Does the author have credentials? Is the author an expert in the field? And most importantly, can you identify the original source of the information? Answering these questions can help identify if the source of the information is real or fake.
- Evaluate the actual claims being made
Identify if the article is presenting a fact or an opinion. If it is an opinion, determine if there is evidence to support that opinion. Often, claims are based on personal experiences and opinions. Even though everyone is entitled to their own opinion, everyone is not entitled to their own facts.
- Be skeptical
Always reflect on how you encounter information. Take note of how you felt when you read the information. Fake news and misinformation evoke strong emotional responses, positive or negative, with the goal of encouraging rapid sharing on social media. If you feel a strong emotional response to a piece of news, what you’re reading could be fabricated.
- Fact check from a third party
Most importantly, fact check news before you share it. Factcheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a non-partisan, non-profit third-party fact checking resource, and can be very useful to determine the credibility of different types of information. When in doubt, it is a good idea to do some fact checking to help you identify if something is real or not.
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