Read Laterally, Not Vertically
Wineberg and McGrew followed three groups of readers as they evaluated digital sources provided in the study: historians, Stanford undergraduates, and professional fact-checkers. They found that the fact-checkers were fastest and most accurate in vetting information, while the historians and students were easily deceived.
The student participants did something they (and all of us) do often: they scrolled and read down the page. But their close reading of the very sources they were tasked to interrogate did little to advance their credibility assessment. Instead, it misled them.
“The close reading of a digital source, when one doesn’t yet know if the source can be trusted,” write Wineburg and McGrew, “proves a colossal waste of time.”
As students meandered and fluttered across their screens, they were drawn to websites’ most easily manipulated features — like scientific-sounding language or the presence of an "About Us" page. Their grounds for inferring trustworthiness were largely centered on these incomplete evaluations, and they frequently misjudged websites’ origins and reliability.
Unlike the student participants in the study, the professional fact-checkers began their evaluations by opening new tabs in their browser. They conducted refined searches, and consulted other sources with well-established credentials, to judge the integrity of the original website. This inclination to take bearings and gain a sense of direction fed fact-checkers’ success in the study. They often needed less prompting than historians and students, and learned far more by reading less.
Takeaway: Encourage students to take the indirect route and begin their investigation of unfamiliar digital sources by leaving them. When students read laterally, they will avoid diving too deep into the actual content of the website in question and gain a wider, more impartial view of its credibility.
Don’t Fall for Appearances
Students’ more superficial evaluations of digital sources are evidence of what Wineburg and McGrew call the “representativeness heuristic” — the tendency to evaluate probabilities by the degree to which A resembles B. It’s easy for cognitive bias to take over in such scenarios.
For the great majority of the study’s student participants, this reliance on appearance determined their perception of given sources and created a “false sense of security.” They were drawn to website layouts, abstracts, references, and, in one case, a .org domain — all elements that may easily meet the requirements of a checklist approach to verifying a digital source.