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Teaching Credibility in the Age of The Internet Hoax, or How Not to Be An April Fool

Help students identify authentic and reliable sources.

Kelsey Herron | April 1, 2012

You too can buy these exotic spaghetti bushes! If you had picked up the phone back in 1957, you would have been one of hundreds calling to inquire about where to buy the miracle bushes, which, according to the BBC documentary, yielded spaghetti that “always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers.” You would also have been one of the thousands who were punked by the BBC spoof.

It’s an April Fool’s Day prank, of course, but on this day in 1957, the spoof, believed to be the first televised hoax on a national network, both confused and aggravated viewers who felt that the BBC had breached its code of standards.

Television was fairly new in 1957, and people trusted it still, which makes for easy targets. Many could say the same thing about the internet today. Despite the Nigerian dictators regularly asking for money and the influx of spam in our in-boxes, we consider ourselves pretty savvy – and teens are particularly prone to an inflated sense of their “digital native” know-how (insert eye roll at mom’s inability to upload a YouTube video here). But we’re not.

As silly as the holiday can be, April Fool’s Day is the perfect time to remind kids and students of the importance of verifying sources, double-checking claims, and figuring out who is behind the website – and providing them with the proper tools to do so. Education technology expert Steve Hargadon notes that “time and experience” are the two key factors that make us more skeptical –- and also happen to increase with age. It is our job as parents and educators to make sure kids know how to recognize the signs of inauthentic information online because, as you know, they are mostly on their own to assess credibility.

Findings from a 2007 study by Andrew J. Flanagin and Miriam J. Metzger found that teens ages 11-18 judge credibility primarily by website attributes, such as design features, depth of content, and navigability of the site. The study further found that the more experience with the internet, the greater the ability to self-verify the information presented. So, ideally, the more kids read online, the better they will be at detecting the veracity of a site or source. Results also showed that kids ranked news organizations’ websites highest in terms of overall trustworthiness, and personal sites like blogs ranked lowest, which suggests that kids trust sites they have been told are credible. They’re listening! That said, their first stop is still the internet to find information.

For example, according to a later study by Flanagin and Metzger, kids distrusted Wikipedia, which the researchers attributed to years of teachers telling students that the online encyclopedia was a dubious source. Kids said that Wikipedia was less credible than sites like Britannica, written by experts rather than Wikipedia’s open authorship. However, when entries from both sites were presented without the brand names, many kids placed the most trust in the information from Wikipedia. “They found Wikipedia entries to be the most credible compared to the stripped-out Britannica entry,” Metzger said. Ultimately it appears that kids are looking at content and not just the way it’s packaged.

Metzger and Flanagin’s results also found that 73 percent of children had received some type of digital media literacy education and most are concerned about credibility. However, many are less rigorous when it comes to actually evaluating online information.

Although it appears that parents and teachers are doing a good job of talking to their kids about valuing the integrity of what they view online, more can always be done – especially as kids are consuming large amounts of information via smart phones and other mobile devices, which takes them away from the computer in the living room where parents are on hand to help decipher information if needed.

The New York Times’ Learning Network published a curriculum in February to help students identify authenticity. Times reporters Shannon Doyne and Holly Epstein Ojalvo suggest having students brainstorm methods for checking the veracity of a source. The curriculum also includes two articles followed by reading comprehension questions aimed to encourage students to think critically about the information presented and how it was collected.

Researchers from King Saud University, Al-Khalifa S. Hend and Rasha M. Al-Eidan, also published a study last year investigating the credibility of news published on Twitter. They’re developing a system to measure the veracity of the information presented by comparing news posted on Twitter to authenticated news stories published in print. This will come in handy for activists since dictators have begun using Twitter as a platform for dispersing pro-government propaganda.

Additional help is available from Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, which launched the Web Credibility Project to investigate how digital media consumers assess the trustworthiness of online sources. The project published a list of ten guidelines for building and boosting the authority of a web site. This resource provides an alternative perspective to gauging credibility and is ideal for students who are interested in making their own blogs look more professional and reliable.
And of course, Common Sense Media offers a rich (and free) curriculum tailored to different grades and levels, ranging from rating websites to searching strategies to how to recognize advertising on sites.