To Navigate the Dangers of the Web, You Need Critical Thinking – but also Critical Ignoring

nadia_bormotova/iStock.com

Learning to ignore information is not something taught in school.

The web is a treacherous place.

A website’s author may not be its author. References that confer legitimacy may have little to do with the claims they anchor. Signals of credibility like a dot-org domain can be the artful handiwork of a Washington, D.C., public relations maven.

Unless you possess multiple Ph.D.’s – in virology, economics and the intricacies of immigration policy – often the wisest thing to do when landing on an unfamiliar site is to ignore it.

Learning to ignore information is not something taught in school. School teaches the opposite: to read a text thoroughly and closely before rendering judgment. Anything short of that is rash.

But on the web, where a witches’ brew of advertisers, lobbyists, conspiracy theorists and foreign governments conspire to hijack attention, the same strategy spells doom. Online, critical ignoring is just as important as critical thinking.

That’s because, like a pinball bouncing from bumper to bumper, our attention careens from notification to text message to the next vibrating thing we must check.

The cost of all this overabundance, as the late Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon observed, is scarcity. A flood of information depletes attention and fractures the ability to concentrate.

Modern society, wrote Simon, faces a challenge: to learn to “allocate attention efficiently among the overabundance of sources that might consume it.”

We’re losing the battle between attention and information.

‘Glued to the Site’

As an applied psychologist, I study how people determine what is true online.

My research team at Stanford University recently tested a national sample of 3,446 high school students on their ability to evaluate digital sources. Armed with a live internet connection, students examined a website that claims to “disseminate factual reports” on climate science.

Students were asked to judge whether the site was reliable. A screen prompt reminded them that they could search anywhere online to reach their answer.

Instead of leaving the site, the vast majority did exactly what school teaches: They stayed glued to the site – and read. They consulted the “About” page, clicked on technical reports, and examined graphs and charts. Unless they happened to possess a master’s degree in climate science, the site, filled with the trappings of academic research, looked, well, pretty good.

The few students – less than 2% – who learned the site was backed by the fossil fuel industry did so not because they applied critical thinking to its contents. They succeeded because they hopped off the website and consulted the open web. They used the web to read the web.

As a student who searched the internet for the group’s name wrote: “It has ties to large companies that want to purposefully mislead people when it comes to climate change. According to USA Today, Exxon has sponsored this nonprofit to pump out misleading information on climate change.”

Instead of getting tangled up in the site’s reports or suckered into its neutral-sounding language, this student did what professional fact checkers do: She evaluated the site by leaving it. Fact checkers engage in what we call lateral reading, opening up new tabs across the top of their screens to search for information about an organization or individual before diving into a site’s contents.

Only after consulting the open web do they gauge whether expending attention is worth it. They know that the first step in critical thinking is knowing when to deploy it.

Critical Thinking

The good news is that students can be taught to read the internet this way.

In an online nutrition course at the University of North Texas, we embedded short instructional videos that demonstrated the dangers of dwelling on an unknown site and taught students how to evaluate it.

At the beginning of the course, students were duped by features that are ludicrously easy to game: a site’s “look,” the presence of links to established sources, strings of scientific references or the sheer quantity of information a site provides.

On the test we gave at the beginning of the semester, only three in 87 students left a site to evaluate it. By the end, over three-quarters did. Other researchers, teaching the same strategies, have found similarly hopeful results.

Learning to resist the lure of dubious information demands more than a new strategy in students’ digital tool box. It requires the humility that comes from facing one’s vulnerability: that despite formidable intellectual powers and critical thinking skills, no one is immune to the slippery ruses plied by today’s digital rogues.

By dwelling on an unfamiliar site, imagining ourselves smart enough to outsmart it, we squander attention and cede control to the site’s designers.

Spending a few moments vetting the site by drawing on the awesome powers of the open web, we regain control and with it our most precious resource: Our attention.

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University.

The ConversationThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.