Friday, September 29, 2023

Beware of misinformation after Hurricane Ian


Misinformation is common in the wake of huge storms, and because of social media, unconfirmed reports often get represented as factual too quickly, reports.

The problem, of course, is that not all the claims are false, and flooding social media with false claims drowns out the real news. The Associated Press determined that a video of a shark swimming in suburban floodwaters was indeed shot in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Classrooms fight misinformation

Misinformation/disinformation resources for teachers and students

Free resources

Several online games address the topic, including “Go Viral!“, a game that teaches the techniques used to spread false information, especially about the pandemic; “Bad News“, another game that demonstrates disinformation tactics (research about “Bad News”); and “Factitious 2020: Pandemic Edition“, which challenges players to differentiate between real and fake news.

The News Literacy Project puts out a weekly newsletter, The Sift, and offers interactive lessons that empower learners to identify credible information and understand the importance of a free press.

The Information Futures Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health was founded by two communication experts who have worked in and with newsrooms, non-profits, startups, government agencies, and universities around the world. “It is time we envision a different future for our information spaces,” said Brown University provost Richard Locke. “The Covid-19 pandemic has made crystal clear how misinformation poisons public discourse, disrupts efforts to respond effectively in a crisis and interferes with our ability to live healthy lives. But misinformation is just one part of the challenge. We also need to study how we can make our rapidly changing information ecosystems less vulnerable to abuses and more beneficial for society. By creating the Information Futures Lab, our university will become a catalyst for innovation and a partner to those on the front lines working to identify effective responses.”

“Identify and Tackling Manipulated Media,” by the media organization Reuters, is a course on how to tell when media has been distorted.

The Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism has a repository of curriculum tools.

The Debunking Handbook 2020 is a guide to combating disinformation and misinformation. It is hosted by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication but is not specific to climate misinformation.

Misinformation Desk, a Psychology Today blog by Susan Nolan, PhD, and Michael Kimball, connects current examples of misinformation with psychological research.

The Civic Online Reasoning curriculum developed by the Stanford History Education Group includes lessons, assessments, and videos about how to evaluate online information. The group recently published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times entitled “What happens when TikTok is your main source of news and information.”

Additional research

Wineburg, S., et al. (2016), Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning. Stanford Digital Repository, 2016

Musgrove, A. T., et al. (2018), Real or fake? Resources for teaching college students how to identify fake news. College & Undergraduate Libraries.

Breakstone, J., et al. (2018), “Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy,” Phi Delta Kappan.

Kozyreva, A., et al. (2020), “Citizens versus the internet: Confronting digital challenges with cognitive tools,” Psychological Science in the Public interest.

Before we go any further in the internet age, we must understand the difference between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is incorrect information spread innocently: The person creating it or sharing it believes it to be true. Disinformation is deliberately false information.

Research last year from the Stanford History Education Group found that in a diverse sample of 3,446 high school students from 14 states, most students struggled to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy information online.

Only about 3 percent of students realized, for example, that the fossil fuel industry ran a website purporting to deliver legitimate information about climate change. Most tended to use ineffective methods for deciding whether to trust an internet source: They put a great deal of trust in .org web addresses, for example, and took “About Us” pages at face value. Less than 10 percent cross-checked a source’s credentials with a simple web search.

And when these students spread disinformation to create misinformation, the stories go viral, and nobody can check the primary sources anymore. But no one is immune to spreading disinformation. Despite our best efforts, I’m sure I’ve fallen for things a few times on these pages. The creators of disinformation are simply growing increasingly savvy; video and image manipulation technology has improved so much.

Since Voxitatis also gets most of its news via the internet, which means sometimes going to sites other than NBC News or The New York Times, we often use a technique called “lateral reading.” This means we leave a source and check for background information about the source on other sites or in peer-reviewed journals. The idea of lateral reading is easily taught but hardly ever known by students a priori.

In addition to checking the validity of the source, though, students (and adults) must also be aware of wild claims or the possibility that a “link” that is claimed between two events or trends may involve a spurious correlation. This is not easy to get across, as it involves much higher critical thinking than simply checking the validity or motivation of source material.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


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