Navigating Away From Online Misinformation

Q&A with Sarah McGrew
Sarah McGrew in front of computer

As a high school history teacher early in her career, Sarah McGrew often asked her students to read and analyze primary sources and answer big historical questions. While it might not have seemed relevant to their day-to-day lives, being able to ferret out reliable information while casting aside questionable claims is actually a key skill for the internet-driven information age, when a non-stop stream of information pours over us from new and existing technologies. 

“Information influences how we think, even in ways that we don’t always recognize. We have to be careful when deciding what sources we use to gather information,” explains McGrew. 

Today, the assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership researches how students find and evaluate online information on contentious social and political topics—and how schools can better support students to learn effective strategies.

What steps can we take to make ourselves resistant to misinformation?
We should train ourselves to think about where the information we see is coming from and whether we trust that source. A great way to investigate online sources is to use a technique called lateral reading, which Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford University, and I learned from watching professional fact checkers evaluate websites. Anytime you see a site or a post whose source you don’t recognize, open a new tab and search outside the site for more information about its source. If you leave the site and do a quick search for more information, you’ll likely learn so much more about the author or organization than what you’d find on the “About Us” page or profile. 

Next, we can practice click restraint while we navigate search results. Research suggests that many young people, and adults too, assume that the top search result is the most reliable. We just click on the first few links and consume whatever information those websites provide. Search engines use algorithms to determine what appears in front of us and the order that it appears. Instead of trusting the algorithm to put the best site first, we should spend time scanning the search results, considering the kind of information we’re searching for, and making a better decision about where to click first. 

Finally, we should rethink some of our assumptions about how to tell if online information is reliable. For example, there’s a belief that .org websites are more reliable than .com websites, and that’s not necessarily true. Anyone can register for a .org domain. Or, we might have learned that Wikipedia is not a credible source, but Wikipedia can be a great starting point for online research, especially because one of their community standards is that there should be references at the bottom of the page to any claims that are made.

How can we combat misinformation on social media?
First, there are some misconceptions about what makes social media posts more reliable that we need to tackle. People often assume that social media posts with higher levels of engagement— more likes, shares and comments—or that come from accounts with lots of followers and engagement are more reliable. Again, that’s not true; the best way to decide is to read laterally about the source or investigate the claims a post makes through sources you trust.

Second, we should be thoughtful about how we treat posts that we discover are false or misleading. If we engage with or share those posts (even to point out how wrong they are), it further expands the circle of people who are going to see them. This is one way that misinformation spreads so quickly on social media. If you really want to debunk a post, start a new post that leads with accurate information in a clear, concise statement, then explain why the falsehood is misleading, and finally restate the accurate information again. 

Finally, we know that social media algorithms often prioritize showing us content that makes us feel strong emotions. It makes us more likely to engage and stay on social media longer. Instead of reacting quickly to content that makes us feel angry, sad, or elated, we should slow down. Take a moment to check our emotions, and try to think about the questions I already described: Where is this coming from? Do I trust that source?

With the complexity of emerging technologies, can we truly stop the spread of misinformation?
It may feel like we’re losing the fight against misinformation, but I still have a lot of hope. My research shows that when we teach strategies like lateral reading and click restraint, even though just a few lessons, students get significantly better at evaluating online information. Right now, there’s not a lot of focus in the curriculum on helping students learn to navigate digital information—so in some ways, it’s not surprising that we’re not very good at it. The Internet has grown and changed so quickly, and education just hasn’t kept up. But, if we start teaching these strategies to students at a younger age and across subjects, we can help students be a lot more effective at evaluating information—and hopefully they can help teach their parents and other community members!