How to teach to combat misinformation: “Less critical thinking and more knowing what you are looking at”
In the first year of study at many universities in the United States, librarians often teach classes on how to find information and check sources. A decade ago, with the explosion of the internet, they realized that something was wrong. The confusion grew. The students believed they came across reliable sources that were actually garbage.
Michael Caulfield (Boston, 51), an expert in the new field of digital literacy at Washington State University (USA), began to notice what was happening. The problem was not so much the lies that were circulating, but what people were paying attention to. Suddenly a rare commodity like information had become almost infinite. You no longer had to “pay attention” to understand something, but millions of web pages, videos or infographics wanted to “draw attention”. Lying and exaggeration were only two ways to claim our interest.
Caulfield went looking for an antidote. Over the years he has devised a method based on four concepts trying to change the way young people search for information on the internet and that it is taught in more than one hundred universities and dozens of North American institutes. His first victim It is the misunderstood critical thinking, as he tells EL PAIS in conversation by Zoom from Vancouver, headquarters of the campus of his university in the Northwest of the United States.
1. Don’t start with critical thinking
Caulfield begins by retracing a tradition that prevailed until now. “The traditional critical thinking that we teach doesn’t work,” he says. “We ask the students to take a document or a photo or some data and we tell them that the most direct way to the truth is to look at it very carefully, to immerse themselves in it,” he adds.
But no. Not that that’s bad by itself. It is insufficient: “First you have to know what you are looking at.” Once someone has captured your attention with something, to make the effort to analyze it is to give it an advantage. A racist or anti-vaccine page wants you to doubt what you’ve heard so far. Its effectiveness resides above all in that the reader does not know that this website, which seems serious, is actually the work of a Nazi group or promoter of homeopathy.
2. Screening, a four-step method
Caulfield devised a method to avoid employing critical thinking on unreliable pages. He called it SIFT, for its acronym in English, a word that also means “to sift” in Spanish.
-Research the source.
-Look for more reliable coverage.
-Trace the original context, especially in the case of photos, videos or quotes.
The method is based on a very simple resource: before reading the page down, vertically, open another tab and investigate the source, horizontally. In Spanish it has been translated in part by the Verificat information verification platform. That concept is called “side reading” and was devised by Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford University, and on which Caulfield drew to create his method.
In February Wineburg and a group of professors published a scientific article with a side-reading experiment. Before explaining anything to them, they asked a group of 87 young people to identify the credibility of a page as acceptable or not. Only 3 of them opened another tab to check the funding or the CV of their authors. The rest tried to unravel the answer by analyzing the page, with traditional critical thinking. The methods were almost random, without any foundation: is it a .com or .org domain? Do you have many links? Do you have a lot of ads? What do they say in “about us”?
After four sessions on side reading, 67 of the 87 looked for information outside of that page. With the first method, only two of the three who did side-reading were correct about the dubious credibility with good reasons. The other 84 focused “exclusively on features that were irrelevant or could be manipulated” by the authors. After the sessions, 36 of the young people found the information about the dubious financing of the page.
3. Doubts lead to cynicism
The goal of the Caulfied method is to focus the questions and thus reduce the time required to obtain something close to an answer. “People receive so many opposing points of view that to know if something is true or a lie they have to look at it in depth, analyze the data, even download an Excel sheet,” he explains. “They feel that discovering the truth will be an arduous road, with which they raise their hands and say who knows”, and from there to cynicism.
“The risk of cynicism is believing that nobody tells the truth, that everyone lies the same,” adds Caulfield. Its objective therefore is to eliminate a part of that cynicism.
The metaphor of the car salesman is for Caulfield a good example of what happens in these cases. The buyer comes to the dealership and knows more or less what he wants: a midsize car, with air conditioning and good speakers. It has two conditions and a price cap. But the seller is going to screw you up. Add endless new variables: gasoline or not, four-by-four, leather seats, trunk, tires. “That process wears us out. It overloads you, you quit, and you end up paying more for something you didn’t want, ”he says.
The same happens with information. He is no longer a seller, but thousands of photos, messages, tweets, videos. “Everyone tries to attract you but you have to walk away and go back to the question you were asking yourself at the beginning. And tell you: in an ideal world who could answer me? Thus, you still avoid ending up, 18 clicks later, in a well where it is claimed that a group of reptilians runs the world, “he adds.
4. The truth is not in crisis, but the reputation
Caulfield’s method is not to protect the media. On the contrary. It is to put them in their place, as the least bad of the solutions in some cases. When we talk about misinformation or biased news, “what gets lost in the conversation is relative reputation,” he says. “The question is not whether THE COUNTRY is always right. The question is if you read a piece of information in the newspaper, are you more likely to have a rigorous view of what is happening than if you investigate it on your own in the same amount of time? ”He says.
That is, according to Caulfield, the question an information consumer should ask: what is the best choice for a quick summary of the situation. “That’s where we begin to lose the notion that even if a journalist in the media has been wrong on another occasion or that the headline was a bit exaggerated, not everything is going to be wrong. The truth is that there is a health journalist who has been in the sector for 10 years, understands the questions, knows who the experts are, asks them and gives you a summary, so it is likely that what he produces is better than what your uncle Fred hangs up on Facebook. That does not imply that the health journalist gets everything right. We must look at these things taking into account the alternatives and not only in what a particular source is like ”, he says.
It is not just about thinking about fake news linked to political parties, which too, but about finding reasonable answers to questions about nutrition, climate, vaccines or diseases.
5. Young people do not know more
Another conclusion drawn by Caulfield is the myth of young people’s digital skills: they exist, but not as we think. “It can be argued that a part of them are somewhat more skilled at some things, but when you put them to watch biased news in the real world, they do not do better than previous generations,” he says. And they still have a new problem: they do not recognize the headlines of reliable newspapers. “If you ask them to name a newspaper they won’t say the New York Times”, Add.
Caulfield’s method has also proven effective in both conservative and progressive areas and has come to the conclusion that the people who post disinformation on purpose are fewer than we think: the most engaged, those who post on Facebook 15 times a day. The impression may be that there are lots of people like that but no, “he says.
6. The return of the context
The Internet has removed the context of a lot of information. Before it was clear where it came from: an encyclopedia, a newscast, a neighbor. Each one gave him the weight he believed. Now the confusion is extraordinary: a partisan blog can resemble a traditional medium, a biased dictionary copies Wikipedia, or an anti-vaccine post imitates the language of a scientific article.
Due to our historical formation, we give weight to that information that comes to us in an apparently serious way. It is no longer enough.
Caulfield’s method focuses on users. “It’s my job,” he says. But the platforms also have a responsibility. On mobile it is less agile to open another tab in the browser and type a new search. “We have tried to convince those who make these applications to facilitate the process. WhatsApp is experimenting with incorporating some tools into its messages and they may end up linked to links, “he says.
Caulfield believes that the fight against misinformation should be like driver education: the use of the blinker or the recognition of signs does not prevent companies and authorities from doing their part. “Car manufacturers include seat belts, airbags or collision detectors and the people who devise the roads are looking for ways to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Everyone must work together, ”he says. “You can’t solve the problem just by asking people to be better or by changing platforms. You have to make a safer ecosystem while teaching better tools, “he adds.