Much web literacy I’ve seen either asks students to look at web pages and think about them, or teaches them to publish and produce things on the web. While both of these activities are valuable, neither addresses a set of real problems students confront daily: evaluating the information that reaches them through their social media streams. For these daily tasks, students need concrete strategies and tactics for tracing claims to sources and for analyzing the nature and reliability of those sources.
The web gives us many such strategies, tactics, and tools, which, properly used, can get students closer to the truth of a statement or image within seconds. Unfortunately, we do not teach students these specific techniques. As many people have noted, the web is both the largest propaganda machine ever created and the most amazing fact-checking tool ever invented. But if we haven’t taught our students those fact-checking capabilities, is it any surprise that propaganda is winning?
This is an unabashedly practical guide for the student fact-checker. It supplements generic information literacy with the specific web-based techniques that can get you closer to the truth on the web more quickly.
This guide will show you how to use date filters to find the source of viral content, how to assess the reputation of a scientific journal in less than five seconds, and how to see if a tweet is really from the famous person you think it is or from an impostor. It’ll show you how to find pages that have been deleted, figure out who paid for the website you’re looking at, and whether the weather portrayed in that viral video actual matches the weather in that location on that day. It’ll show you how to check a Wikipedia page for recent vandalism and how to search the text of almost any printed book to verify a quote. It’ll teach you to parse URLs and scan search result blurbs so that you are more likely to get to the right result on the first click. And it’ll show you how to avoid baking confirmation bias into your search terms.
In other words, this guide will help you become “web literate” by showing you the unique opportunities and pitfalls of searching for truth on the web. Crazy, right?
This is the instruction manual to reading on the modern internet. I hope you find it useful.