How to tell the difference between fact and fiction on a ‘post-truth’ internet

“Right now we have a health hazard to democratic functioning.”

Those are the words of Professor Sam Wineberg of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University in the United States, my guest on this edition of The Psychology Report. Professor Weinberg and his colleagues have been looking at the sorts of errors that we can make when looking at information sources and how we establish whether they are true or not. His findings are worrying – and surprising – and raise big questions about how we use the internet and the devices we use to access it, or indeed how we may be being used by others through these devices and interfaces we access to use the internet and the information on it.

Sam Wineburg: For about the past 30 years I’ve been studying how people make sense of the past with historical materials. My primary interest is how our understanding of the past influences our conceptions of the present, and one of my main concerns has been how both young people as well as professional historians make their way through fragmented and contentious primary sources. So, it’s not a very big leap to go from the evaluation of sources about the past to how we come to determine what is credible in terms of the sources that we encounter online about political and social issues.

Sarb Johal: So, that seems to me the key – it’s the establishing of credibility and how it is that we use our previous experience, and perhaps the categories that we use to organize that information in terms of our experience in the past and how that influences how we sort information and categorize information that we are presented within the present.

SW: Yes very much so. Obviously there are differences in dealing with print sources or archival sources and digital sources. I think that there are many more challenges in terms of the way that information can be doctored or changed in digital form than in printed form. Nonetheless, there is a continuum that goes between the two.

SJ: And that’s what you’re particularly interested in, in the report and the study that I’ve seen you writing about recently – the differences that exists between looking at digital sources and the way that people process traditional print media where they have it in front of them – that’s not so easily manipulated and changed in order to lead people down a particular path…

SW: That’s very much the case. There is a philosopher at the University of Connecticut named Michael Lynch who wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times back in March (2017) where he said that the internet is the best fact-checking device that humanity could have invented at the same time as being the best bias-confirming device that we could have invented. And in that sense what we’re trying to understand is how people make thoughtful decisions so that they can use the internet as a fact-checking device rather than simply turning it into an echo chamber for beliefs that they already espouse.

SJ: Maybe we can come back to that because I think that’s hugely relevant – the way that we can set up these bubbles for ourselves, but how systems that we use can set up bubbles that we perhaps are not consciously aware of unless we’re made aware of them. Also, how some of the systems that are put in place to safeguard us means that we perhaps our may be protected from the worst of the internet, but don’t learn skills as to how to protect ourselves.

SW: I think that the question that you’re asking right now is very pertinent with all of the brouhaha around Facebook and whether Facebook is going to take responsibility for the spread of fake news on the internet. And I think that ultimately Mark Zuckerberg and his team will invent devices that allow Facebook to label those things that are more credible and less credible in terms of news sources. But I think it’s a false hope to to pin all of the responsibility or to pin our fate to what Facebook does. Whatever Facebook invents, there’ll be connivers who will find a way to circumvent their way around it, and ultimately what we have yet to develop as a civilization in the face of a revolution that is no less cataclysmic than the invention of the printing press, is what are the devices that ordinary citizens are going to need, what are the skills and capabilities that they’re going to need in order to make thoughtful decisions about the information that comes across the digital transom. And we are in the midst of a chaotic phase right now and I think it’s following every major influence, every major revolution about how we understand ourselves and how we learn about the world there, is a period of absolute chaos and we are in it right now. And I think that the cries of crisis that we’re hearing about fake news are a canary in the mine, if you will.

SJ: Maybe we can talk a little bit about some of the blind spots that you’ve discovered in the research that you’ve done concerning how people parse and process information that is presented to them and how they manage or don’t manage to establish credibility of that information, and the sources that may be responsible for constructing that information that they’re presented with.

SW: Well, we could start with students who are in in the United States and what we call middle school and in Grades at seven and eight – they’re 12 and 13 years old – and many of them already possess a smartphone and are what people would call digital natives. What we discovered was that making the most rudimentary distinctions between, for instance an online news story versus an advertisement, posed a considerable challenge to students in this age group. More than eighty percent of them were unable to distinguish between a news story and content that had been paid for by a commercial sponsor. So, that’s extremely concerning. At the high school level, we found something not quite as dramatic but certainly in the same direction where students would, for instance, evaluate a picture about mutant daisies in the wake of the tsunami at that Fukushima plant nuclear plant in Japan, and rather than asking where this particular picture comes from who posted it and whether it had been photoshopped, students took at face value and said that it offered evidence for the effects of nuclear radiation. At university levels, we found we found very disconcerting results that university students in many ways are ill-equipped to engage in research in a digital format, that they are far too credulous of sources that come to them and have a difficult time making basic distinctions and what is credible and what is not credible.

SJ: Could you give me an example of the sorts of things that college students were falling prone to?

SW: So, there is a great prejudice, at least in North America, toward Wikipedia I don’t know if the same pertains in New Zealand, but we have many teachers forbidding students to use Wikipedia or demeaning it as a source, despite the fact that it’s the seventh most traffic site in the English language. We gave a task to students to evaluate arguments about gun laws in the United States where they had to look at a source for a pro and con and a thoughtful discussion of the nuances of gun laws and gun legislation. One of the sources was the Wikipedia entry for gun laws, which is actually quite a balanced account, and the second was a web page that had a Duke University URL. However, that URL led to a Professor’s page where he had posted information about guns that was provided by the National Rifle Association – a group that is, one might say, is the strongest proponent of free and open guns, the use of firearms in the United States. And what we found was that students had almost an immediate allergy to Wikipedia and they said that the Duke University site was a better site for finding balanced information about gun laws than Wikipedia, which is just absolutely ludicrous. It just indicates how students are ill-prepared to make these kinds of rudimentary distinctions.

SJ: So in this case, they actually took the preconception that they had about Wikipedia, mapped that onto the sources that were put before them and then automatically discounted for that, regardless of the content that was presented either on that page or in the alternative page that they were given.

SW: That’s precisely the case. You find university students falling into some old traps that might have been pertinent in the days when we used a dial-up modem to log onto the internet, such as the notion that a ‘dot org’ domain name is somehow more credible than another kind of a domain name. The web has become far more sophisticated – there’s so much money involved that organizations and lobbyists can game all these kinds of things in ways that they couldn’t in the mid-nineties. So the internet of 2016-2017 is a much more dangerous place, where the old rules simply no longer pertain and we have to become much more thoughtful and much more savvy about evaluating information.

SJ: And it’s interesting when you say ‘old rules’ because I guess that that’s very relative – because my sense is, and I’m not sure what yours is, that the rate of change is accelerating. So, the ‘old rules’ are actually rules that were in place maybe 3-4 years ago – that could get you buy in this information landscape. Now because, as you say, we have a plethora of, a multiplication of sites where people are going for alternative sources of information without necessarily understanding who it is that is providing that information and it’s not all that transparent… SW: It’s not transparent at all. In fact, it’s very, very heavily cloaked. There are many, many front groups and many phantom sites, and many sites that misrepresent their real agenda. Again I want to be cautious not to indict young people: we have just concluded a study – we haven’t published the results yet because we are just writing up the results – where we looked at a group of academics and we found in many cases that people with PhDs who use the internet all day long for finding information are themselves quite ill-equipped to make these kinds of distinctions. We compared this group of academics to a group of professional fact-checkers at many of that the finest and most prestigious publications in the United States, and what we found is quite a different approach to how one gains footing on the web when one lands on an unfamiliar site. What the academics tended to do was that they tended to treat a site like a much like a printed source. We characterize it as a vertical reading strategy – they read up and down, or down and up, but their eyes go vertically up and down the page when they land on it, and they often have an over-confidence in their ability to discern hidden meanings or to ferret out the connotations of the text. What we found with fact-checkers is that they approach the web quite differently. If the rest of us read vertically, fact-checkers read horizontally. When they land on an unfamiliar site, they’re almost immediately off that site opening up multiple tabs, going to different pages, first getting a fix on the organization that is providing the information before spending a great deal of time thinking and parsing information when they don’t even understand the source where it comes from.

SJ: That’s interesting, because that seems to me and I wonder how much this differed in this academic sample compared to the younger groups that you’re looking at – as you’re talking I had thoughts around they’re triangulating their sense of confidence in the information that they’re reading from their own internal resource, their own internal experience, and then developing a sense of confidence around the information from that internal resource. Whereas what you’re saying is that the professional fact-checkers immediately went to triangulate from external trusted sources to understand the degree of confidence that they can have in that new information. So as you say those that lateral external triangulation and validity checking rather than internal validity checking.

SW: I would just make a small modification to your rephrasing of it. When people go to sources that they know, whether it’s an established newspaper – The New York Times comes to mind or the Wall Street Journal in North American context – they don’t necessarily need to triangulate. People for a long time have depended upon these sources because these sources have the internal checks and balances and offer corrections when they’ve made errors. But what we’re talking about is landing on an unfamiliar source; a source that’s not easily recognized, and what you’re saying is absolutely true. What it is that most of us do – young people, college students as well as degreed University Professors is that they will look at the evaluation and evaluate in terms of their own prior knowledge. What fact-checkers do, and I want to quote the head of fact-checking at a major American publication – I’m not at liberty to disclose its name – but she said to me this, and it really characterizes the fundamental difference between mostly lay people and professional fact-checkers. She said to me that hubris is the enemy of fact-checking, and what she meant by that is that the web has become so sophisticated and the ruses so multifarious that a fact-checker whose livelihood depends on getting things right, cannot rely on their gut instinct. Gut instincts are fallible and when getting things right are at stake, the fact-checker goes beyond gut instincts and tries to fight all kinds of tendencies toward hubris, towards arrogance.

SJ: And that’s very challenging. When are driven by these instincts and these biases, to develop the awareness to consciously combat the instincts that we have towards accepting or dismissing a piece of information that’s in front of us that takes a lot of effort.

SW: It takes less effort than you might think. I mean it takes a kind of moral stance, which another researcher at University of California Riverside – Joe Kahne – calls a commitment to accuracy. And what we’re finding in a digital society now and, you know again, I think that confirmation biases are rampant, but what we’re finding is that a traditional commitment to accuracy irrespective of the particular beliefs that we hold has deteriorated and is deteriorating, and I think that we see it for instance in the United States where the President-Elect (at time of recording original podcast) tweets things from known bogus websites. And so the challenge of both fake news and the information free-for-all that we find ourselves in, it means that we have to rethink some basic educational commitments, and how do we create programs among our youth and in our schools that we constitute a commitment to accuracy? Because if we don’t have that commitment then it’s not simply a threat to the news that we think is going on in the world, it really is the very thing that that undergirds our entire system of jurisprudence. If we are not committed to facts and to accuracy, then we have no moral grounds to imprison people, whether in New Zealand or in Chicago.

SJ: So part of that is developing the awareness of the problem, which I think that your work and other people are contributing to here, but I think that it’s becoming widely accepted that there is an issue here. We are not completely sure around at the processes by which we fall prey to this manipulation or fake information; particularly I think when it’s quite complex. I’ve come across issues where sites or sources have wrapped up a fictitious piece of information inside a fact, and then their people walked along a path where, “well, I know (a) is true and I know (b) is true, but (c) I’ve not heard of before; but because it’s next to (a) and (b), I’m going to assume that that’s true too. Have you have you come across that, where you’ve seen this? Not just the outright frankly incorrect information but where it’s been embedded in correct information?

SW: There’s no particular example that comes to mind, but I think that what you’re talking about is part of the stock-in-trade of propagandists ever since the time of Aristotle’s rhetoric, and so I think that again, that we have many heuristics about making decisions. Daniel Kahneman’s book talks about all of our inferential biases and I think that we use these inferential biases and heuristics in many ways as short cuts for not thinking hard, and so I think you’re quite right; that that those people who want to sway us and do so with full consciousness of their deceit, will wrap up false information and things that may be true in order to better pull the wool over our eyes.

SJ: You’ve talk about some big issues here and I think that I want to cut to the chase here, in terms of who should care about this research that you’re doing and others are doing, and what the point of doing this research is. Where does this take us?

SW: Well, I think that the only people who should care are the people who open up a device, whether a laptop or smartphone, to learn about the world. We require – at least in this country for people who want to get a driver’s license – to take a test, and to demonstrate a basic facility in using a machine. But when we think about the duties of citizenship, the notion of quality information is to democratic functioning what clean air and clean water are to public health, and right now we have a health hazard to democratic functioning. And so the people who should care are the people who constitute and determine the curriculum in our schools, and the people who worry about the future of a prosperous and thriving democracy.

SJ: You talked a bit about schools and young people . One of the things you talk about with the academics is that are also full prey to these traps and these heuristics, which means that they can’t distinguish fact from fiction particularly well. What about that adult age group – we could talk about curriculum development certainly for those people who are within the educational system what about those people who fall without those realms?

SW: This is a particular problem. We have a website with a history curriculum that has close to four million downloads and we’re used in some of the major cities in the United States and actually all over the world, including New Zealand and so I’m in constant contact with educators of all ranges from all levels. And one of the beliefs that I’ve continually run into is this notion that it’s the kids who know how to use these devices and it’s the kids who are digital natives and we’re digital immigrants and it’s the kids who know how to use these things. We believe that that’s a very pernicious and false belief. What we’ve done is we’ve assumed that because young people are fluent in navigating between Facebook and Twitter and Whatsapp – well you know, uploading a selfie to Instagram – that beyond this kind of easy fluency lay a vast reservoir of intelligence and inventing the information that the these devices actually yield. And so what we first need to do is to correct that misimpression – that is a very dangerous misimpression that that our youngsters, because they’re able to operate a device have an understanding of the information that that device yields. It’s like saying that because I can back the car out of my driveway while cradling a cup of coffee that I’m an authority on a fuel-injected engine. I mean that’s simply not the case and that’s analogous to the way that we’re thinking about young people and the internet at this point. What we need to do is to recognize that it’s our teachers, it’s the adults, that are the gatekeepers to what young people will learn and right, now at least in the United States, there are many classrooms where the Internet is filtered or even not allowed at all. And essentially, what school has become the last bastion that protects young people from the world rather than preparing them to deal with it. So, this is a vast educational challenge and as I said earlier, we have invented devices that are handling us, not us them. And so this really requires a fundamental rethinking of business as usual in the way that we think about education. Back when I was a youngster I was sort of brought into a kind of sacred order of going to the public library and learning how to use the social citation index and the guide to periodic literature; that’s simply not the case anymore. What was once the responsibility of librarians and subject matter experts and publishers now falls on the shoulders of anybody who uses a computer to learn about the world.

SJ: So, certainly equipping ourselves but also thinking about the education environment – making sure that our children, our young people are equipped to deal with how to process information in this world, where actually you are responsible to curate and to fact-check the information that’s being presented in front of you – that becomes the real challenge.

SW: That is the real challenge and the question is whether we as a society are up to it.

SJ: How do adults and break out of the bubble that they can create for themselves, when they perhaps prefer to exist in this comfort zone and have people talk to them where the beliefs are roughly similar because anything else feels too challenging. How is it that people could break out of that bubble? Do you have any instances where people have deliberately tried to step outside of that, and what’s worked well?

SW: This is a huge problem and it’s one that’s getting worse. In the olden days when there were a few television stations and some major newspapers, we were often exposed to beliefs that we ordinarily wouldn’t want to be exposed to. But now when we tailor our RSS feeds and our websites, and our daily digital diet to in many ways feed our narcissism, we’ve created what Cass Sunstein calls echo chambers that flatter and further crystallize things that we already believe. So this is a huge problem. I don’t know if anyone’s come up with a response to it but certainly there are stories or anecdotal titbits where people who have a commitment to encountering ideas that are ones that they don’t already believe that they use to try to encounter them. I can tell you what I do personally; I have Facebook friends who I purposely maintained on Facebook because they, in many ways, hold beliefs that I find abhorrent, but it puts me into contact with them. It helps me at least understand the underlying logic of the way that they think, and I think this is I think this is a challenge of modern society, when it becomes so easy to insulate ourselves inside of a cocoon of like-minded people.

SJ: I think you’re speaking there of something quite deep. I guess it’s not just the beliefs that people may have that are different to yours, but it’s the sense of dissonance and emotional spiking that that may generate inside you and whether you have the skills and the knowledge to be able to manage that. And I think that that’s something that people struggle with, and they try to manage to reduce their exposure to those feelings of dissonance, so that they don’t feel that emotional spike – because they find it quite overwhelming when that when that occurs.

SW: Well again, I think that this is you’re absolutely right. I think that we are hard-wired to affiliate with those who share our belief system, and at it’s worst, to ostracise those who don’t, and to demonize those who don’t. But you know, if we’re not talking about off-the-wall beliefs that advocate racism and violence and breaking the law, but we’re talking about different kinds of positions in the public square – let’s take a controversial issue that that all democratic countries have had to deal with which is the issue of abortion. There are a range of beliefs about it – what I think is a challenge for both an individual as well as for a civic society is to create a forum where do not demonize those who say differently from ourselves, but we recognize that there are multiple perspectives on controversial issues and the way that we deal with them in a thoughtful and flourishing democracy is to deal with these conflicts and differences of opinion at the ballot box.

SJ: And that again sounds like a much deeper kind of conversation about what is a society that we wish to live in look like, and how do voices of difference – how are they dealt with and heard and then decided upon – how does that discussion take place?

SW: Exactly, and if you have looked at the comments section of major sources of information, whether they are newspapers or television stations, they are in many cases – at least in this country and I would imagine that you would encounter the same thing in yours – they are rather than places of civic and thoughtful discussion they are more like cesspools where invective is the order of the day rather than civil discourse.

SJ: That’s not an unfamiliar situation here either and I know many websites that have turned that comment function off, just because of the level of vitriol that it can attract.

SW: Exactly, and so how do we … these are new ways of communicating in a public sphere. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a half-dozen good curricula throughout the English-speaking world that prepare young people to be thoughtful and polite and engaged commentators on comments sections on public internet forums. I think that is simply an example of how rapid the change has been and how slow we’ve been to take up the challenge.

SJ: And in those curricula that you have come across are there any particular recommendations that stand out for you?

SW: I mean one of the best – and again it goes back to the difficulty that we have as a species in doing this – is to try to engage in the intellectual exercise of framing an argument from the perspective of a position that you do not embrace. So even if it were an intellectual exercise, what would that argument look like? A contentious debate going on in this country is about the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. Many young people are in favour of that, many young people have experimented with it – it’s not a big thing in this country anymore. But there are people who are vociferously against it, and a very important exercise would be to require those people who are on either side of this position to try to come up with a thoughtful and logical 300-word response that is posted on a public website, in which they embrace the position that they ordinarily would not embrace.

SJ: This reminds me of the kind of the sort of debating skills that you would practice in an oral medium, where you would be asked to take position that actually was something that you didn’t feel wholeheartedly behind, but it was an academic exercise, and you’re thinking that actually doing this in an internet forum it would be a valuable skill, not just in terms of how to have a civilized debate from the alternative perspective, but also to broaden ones exposure outside of one’s own bubble?

SW: I think that’s quite right. The goal too often of a debate however is to win! The goal of the exercise that I’m talking about is to understand.

SJ: Sam, that’s been a fantastic conversation – I was just wondering if there were any other things that the professional fact-checkers did that we could learn from in our everyday usage of the internet in thinking about how we assess the quality of the information that we come across?

SW: I’ll give you two additional tips are in addition to the ones that I’ve already mentioned, which are the opening up multiple tabs and not spending a great deal of time on an unknown website until you understand where that website is coming from. Two additional things that are somewhat counterintuitive because they go against in many ways the advice that you’ll find for establishing web credibility – one of them is that fact checkers know that the issue is not about ‘About’. You can look at many it guides for web credibility and they will say go immediately to the ‘About’ page on a website. Again, this might have been useful advice 15 years ago or five years ago even or ten years ago, but at this point there are so many ruses and so much duplicity on the web that if an organization can register as an NGO they certainly can write whatever they want on an ‘About’ page, and so in many ways fact-checkers take what a website touts says about itself with a grain of salt. And then finally one of the things that profoundly and dramatically distinguishes the approach of fact-checkers from university students, as well as many thoughtful adults, is that it what university students typically do is that they will they will impute to Google a kind of celestial intelligence and confuse a pagerank – the order in which results are issued by Google – with a kind of seal of approval of trustworthiness. So they will assume that the higher up a result is, the more credible or trustworthy it is. And that that kind of belief flies in the face of search engine optimization and all of the ways that search is gamed when so much money is at stake. Fact-checkers will almost instinctively look beyond the first page of results to go to the second and third and fourth and fifth page of results on Google, because they understand the way that SEO (search engine optimizers) game the system and in many ways pollute the order rankings that Google issues. So, beware of the first few results in Google and look beyond that first page of results as you’re trying to pursue the question of credibility.