What was once the Information Age is rapidly becoming the Disinformation Age, where any information online can be used to support any viewpoint, even those that are patently false. With unrestricted internet access just a few taps on the smartphone away, it is impossible to monitor our students’ online activities constantly. We cannot be on hand to tell them what is right or wrong or true or false. Sometimes, we’re not even sure ourselves.
As educators, it falls to us to teach our students a measure of responsibility when they go online. The internet has infiltrated almost every aspect of education. We use it to take attendance, contact parents, look for activities, and do research. Our hope is that our students are using it for research and educational games.
Developing Digital Detectives
When we ask our students to write a paper, we are turning them loose in a virtual sandbox where, to them, every source is reliable. But we know that this is not the case at all! No educator has time to personally vet every source a student uses, especially at the middle and secondary levels when we have 80+ students. Instead, we must empower our students to determine what sources are reliable for themselves.
To start the lesson, I displayed a picture of a suspicious character I found online. I asked my students “Would you trust this man?” It was a resounding “No!” I asked them why.
“He’s weird looking!”
“He’s a stranger!”
“He looks dangerous.”
Through a visual check, they were able to determine that the person they were looking at could not be trusted. I explained that it’s impossible to examine a website and know for sure whether or not it’s reliable. But there are some signs that a website may need secondary confirmation before it can be trusted.
Signs of Suspicious Sources
Websites may not be reliable if the following visual features are present:
- Clickbait titles (“This man found a door in his house! You won’t believe what happens next!”)
- Pop-up ads or dozens of ads
- Strange or overly-colorful fonts and backgrounds
- Uncommon domain endings (Generally, anything that doesn’t end in .org, .edu, .com, or .gov)
Be sure to emphasize that while the above are definitely things to keep in mind, they are by no means the only way to tell if a website is unreliable. Personal websites may have none of the features above and present themselves as reliable, yet be full of disinformation.
More Information on Disinformation
It’s also important to explain why these websites may not be reliable. My students were very familiar with clickbait and understood that the person running the website (or organization) is only looking for clicks on ads. They don’t care if the information is accurate or not, as long as they can get people looking at the ads and clicking on things. Pop-up ads may even hijack a browser, and it’s important to show the students how to defeat these. (Just close the tab or browser and restart it.)
Students need to know what websites can be generally relied upon and why. Generally, websites with .gov and .edu endings are to be trusted given that they are reserved for use by the government and educational institutions with a vested interest in being trustworthy. Additionally, .com websites are the most common, so it’s not unusual to see this domain type. But it doesn’t make a website reliable. The .org ending is most commonly used for charitable organizations, but these may have an agenda as well.
An Exercise in Critical Thinking
To further empower the students, challenge them to think critically. What is the author of this website trying to accomplish? What is this article trying to say? Most importantly, why? If we encourage them to think about the hows and whys, they may begin to learn for themselves what’s true and what’s false or what seems to be true or false. Where did the source come from? Is it a website that looks and acts strangely? Did someone share this on social media?
Last of all, tell students about fact-checking websites where they can go and find information about what they’re reading themselves. Politifact, Snopes, and factcheck.org are all reliable sites that students can use to check what they’re hearing, reading, and seeing. They should also see if any other websites they know they can trust have the same information.
Students are more discriminating than we think. The important thing is to teach them to question the information being presented. Through these lessons, we teach students to be self-reliant, critical thinkers and empower them to navigate an increasingly-confusing world.
This is a guest blog by Jeff Hewitt. Hewitt is a Language Arts educator in Georgia, where he has been teaching for three years. He is also a freelance writer and author. Follow his blog at www.jeffhewittwrites.com or @jhewittwrites on Twitter.