Jack Hassard wrote about the use of social media to spread fake news. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have become facilitators of fake news.

We know it is there. What can we do about it?

This is a very good analysis by a group of scholars at the Stanford History Education Group about civic reasoning, which explains how to avoid being hoaxed by fake news.

The questions that must always be present in any discussion is: How do you know? Who said so? What is the source? How reliable is the source? Can you confirm this information elsewhere? What counts as reliable evidence?

Many people use Wikipedia as a reliable source, but Wikipedia is crowdsourced and is not authoritative. I recall some years back when I gave a lecture in North Carolina that was named in honor of a distinguished senator of the state. The Wikipedia entry said he was a Communist, as were members of his staff. This was obviously the work of a troll. But it might not be obvious to a student researching a paper.

They write:

“Fake news is certainly a problem. Sadly, however, it’s not our biggest. Fact-checking organizations like Snopes and PolitiFact can help us detect canards invented by enterprising Macedonian teenagers,3 but the Internet is filled with content that defies labels like “fake” or “real.” Determining who’s behind information and whether it’s worthy of our trust is more complex than a true/false dichotomy.

“For every social issue, there are websites that blast half-true headlines, manipulate data, and advance partisan agendas. Some of these sites are transparent about who runs them and whom they represent. Others conceal their backing, portraying themselves as grassroots efforts when, in reality, they’re front groups for commercial or political interests. This doesn’t necessarily mean their information is false. But citizens trying to make decisions about, say, genetically modified foods should know whether a biotechnology company is behind the information they’re reading. Understanding where information comes from and who’s responsible for it are essential in making judgments of credibility.

“The Internet dominates young people’s lives. According to one study, teenagers spend nearly nine hours a day online.4 With optimism, trepidation, and, at times, annoyance, we’ve witnessed young people’s digital dexterity and astonishing screen stamina. Today’s students are more likely to learn about the world through social media than through traditional sources like print newspapers.5 It’s critical that students know how to evaluate the content that flashes on their screens.

“Unfortunately, our research at the Stanford History Education Group demonstrates they don’t.* Between January 2015 and June 2016, we administered 56 tasks to students across 12 states. (To see sample items, go to http://sheg.stanford.edu (link is external).) We collected and analyzed 7,804 student responses. Our sites for field-testing included middle and high schools in inner-city Los Angeles and suburban schools outside of Minneapolis. We also administered tasks to college-level students at six different universities that ranged from Stanford University, a school that rejects 94 percent of its applicants, to large state universities that admit the majority of students who apply.

“When thousands of students respond to dozens of tasks, we can expect many variations. That was certainly the case in our experience. However, at each level—middle school, high school, and college—these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in two words: needs improvement.

“Our “digital natives”† may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they’re easily duped. Our exercises were not designed to assign letter grades or make hairsplitting distinctions between “good” and “better.” Rather, at each level, we sought to establish a reasonable bar that was within reach of middle school, high school, or college students. At each level, students fell far below the bar.”

They offer specific examples of hoaxes to show how easily people are duped.

They conclude:

“The senior fact checker at a national publication told us what she tells her staff: “The greatest enemy of fact checking is hubris”—that is, having excessive trust in one’s ability to accurately pass judgment on an unfamiliar website. Even on seemingly innocuous topics, the fact checker says to herself, “This seems official; it may be or may not be. I’d better check.”

“The strategies we recommend here are ways to fend off hubris. They remind us that our eyes deceive, and that we, too, can fall prey to professional-looking graphics, strings of academic references, and the allure of “.org” domains. Our approach does not turn students into cynics. It does the opposite: it provides them with a dose of humility. It helps them understand that they are fallible.

“The web is a sophisticated place, and all of us are susceptible to being taken in. Like hikers using a compass to make their way through the wilderness, we need a few powerful and flexible strategies for getting our bearings, gaining a sense of where we’ve landed, and deciding how to move forward through treacherous online terrain. Rather than having students slog through strings of questions about easily manipulated features, we should be teaching them that the World Wide Web is, in the words of web-literacy expert Mike Caulfield, “a web, and the way to establish authority and truth on the web is to use the web-like properties of it.”13 This is what professional fact checkers do.

“It’s what we should be teaching our students to do as well.”