By Alex Lopez
Let’s start with the big question, “What is web literacy?” According to Wikipedia, “Web literacy comprises the skills and competencies needed for reading, writing and participating on the web.” But what does that mean in a practical sense? To sum it up, it’s knowing and understanding how to fact-check information, and why/when to do so.
We take in countless amounts of information each and every day through social media and news outlets. The problem with this is we typically visit those websites for entertainment, rather than for deep learning. So when we see that a friend or somebody we follow has reposted an article, we take in information from the headline, sometimes a quick skim through. Speaking from experience and talking to fellow peers, 90% of the time we either believe the information we read as true, or dismiss it entirely. We think to ourselves, “Why would a friend post a fake article?”
Now I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t trust your friends, family or followers. The problem here lies with the news sources themselves. They want you to believe what they’ve posted, otherwise they wouldn’t be posting it in the first place.
This might all seem confusing and overwhelming, so let’s break it down by using an example.
You’re scrolling through your Twitter feed and notice that your friend has posted an article: “Snoop Dogg Leads Worship At Local Megachurch.” It sounds fairly interesting, but you just don’t have time to read it right now. Frankly, you don’t know much about Snoop Dogg, you aren’t familiar with the source of the article, but you trust your friends, so you assume it’s be true.
This article is indeed fake. It’s posted by “The Babylon Bee,” a satirical news source created to spark a conversation with bizarre headlines.
Of course this was a rather humorous and simple example, but this type of thing can happen to all of us at any time with headlines that read more seriously.
When it comes to my generation, it seems like we’re all taught the same key things in our high school English/Literacy classes. When researching information for a project, the main points are always to:
- Never use Wikipedia.
- Only trust websites that end in “.gov” or “.net.”
- You must spend at least 20 minutes in order to truly verify a source.
The problem with these three points is that it’s put the notion in our minds that checking the validity of a source takes significant amounts of time and effort, and that it can’t be done in a pinch. But being in a time period where we’re taking in more information than ever before and faster than ever before, we must reconsider these “staples” to researching. Let’s break down each point one by one.
Never trust Wikipedia. This was the main point in researching that always bothered me as a high school student. We have a website that has all this information about a topic, and we aren’t allowed to use it. When I asked my teachers why that is, it always comes down to this: “Wikipedia articles are open for anyone to edit, so it shouldn’t be trusted as a reliable place to look in case of false information.” While I understand this logic, it’s missing an entire side of the equation. Because Wikipedia is so open, it allows anybody to give valuable information to a topic that they likely know a lot about.
There are two main reasons why somebody would write/pitch in to a Wikipedia article. Either they’re super passionate about a topic and want to share it with others, or they dislike something enough to throw off the public’s perception of said thing. The main focus in schools is on the second option, and with good reason! If anybody is able to publish incorrect information about something/someone, it’s better to not use the source at all, right? But there’s a missing piece to this concept:
Wikipedia is highly regulated to prevent this type of thing from happening.
SinceWikipedia has developed through the years and become increasingly popular, they have added methods to make sure that most (if not all) of its information is correct. Every time something is added, it must first go through the community’s editors to verify what has been posted. If it is detected that a user is adding false information to a topic with malicious intent, Wikipedia will ban them from the website, and track the user’s IP address so that they can’t just make a new account and do it again.
In order for it to be as expansive as it is, it has to be open to everyone. Wikipedia puts in a lot of effort to make sure it’s information is accurate.
Now on to the second point: Only trust websites that end in “.gov” or “.net.” The main argument for this is that websites that end in ‘.com’ or ‘.org’ can be created by anyone, and are often used for generating a profit. This is a broad generalization about these websites. The fact is, most websites use the ‘.com’ domain because it’s the easiest to create. You don’t have to be a professional, government organization to have a website. It can be created by an upcoming business or someone who just wants to share their knowledge with others.
There are plenty of great, well-trusted news sources that use this domain. To claim that these websites only exist to make money is like claiming that every restaurant only exists to make money. Of course, that is a big focus and is obviously important. But the restaurant also wants to serve great food and provide an excellent experience to their customers.
In order to make money, they have to provide great content first.
A lot of news outlets do want to make money, they’re all a business at the end of the day. But that’s not the only reason why the website was created in the first place. Like a restaurant, they must provide quality content that is true and reliable in order to attract advertisers to support the business. This isn’t to say there aren’t bad restaurants out there too! It’s just important to consider that money isn’t the only motive at play here.
So how can we accurately verify information? What are the new steps? Let’s go back to our original example, “Snoop Dogg Leads Worship At Local Megachurch.” The first step is to quick-check the source. Wikipedia can be a fantastic way of doing this, and most importantly, it can be done in a pinch. You can quickly click on the link and see that it’s from “The Babylon Bee” then look for that source on Wikipedia:
“The Babylon Bee is a news satire website that publishes satirical articles on religion, politics, current events, and well-known public figures.” So, there’s our answer. The story comes from a satirical news source that emphasizes religion and celebrities.
But say we wanted to take this verification a little further. The next step is to google the headline. A lot of the time, an article will be reposted by other websites in order to attract traffic to their site rather than the original. Simply put, they’re stealing the story. It’s common when something is reposted by a different news source, they might end up twisting the story or leaving out important details. Leading you, the reader to believe something about a story that isn’t true for the sake of the website generating more clicks. In order to combat this, we can simple copy and paste the headline into google, and take a look at the first few sources that come up. We can either “quick-check the source” on those new websites or we can click on them to see if any of them cite the original publication source. It’s a simple way to make sure you’re getting information from the right place without all the twisted details.
You may have noticed I skipped an explanation of the third original research point, “You must spend at least 20 minutes in order to truly verify a source.” This is because I believe these new steps listed above can be done in a pinch. One of the biggest problems with the previous ways of fact-checking is that it simply took too much time to do. We are constantly moving through information, taking it all in quicker than before. Because of this, we need to be able to verify whether a source is reliable within minutes. If we are told that we must spend half an hour to make sure sources are correct, we aren’t going to be able to learn as much as we do, and we’ll often skip verifying a source at all because it’s just easier. If the new generation of students are presented with a method of fact-checking that can be done without wasting much time, we will be a much better educated generation that can process all the of the information we’re taking in as quickly as it’s being received.