Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers: Four Moves

The confirmation bias describes the very human tendency to reject evidence that challenges our worldview, and to seek out — and often cling to — evidence that supports it.

If we believe black cats are bad luck, we remember every time a bad thing happened to us after we saw a black cat. If someone we love tells us we will catch a cold if we go outside with wet hair, we remember every time we went outside with wet hair and then started sniffling.

We forget all the times when a bad thing happened, but we hadn’t seen a cat. (Those sneaky cats!) We forget all the times when we went outside with wet hair, and stayed healthy.

When they are considering topics for a term paper, I tell my college writing students to pick a topic where they don’t already have a strong opinion about the answer. If they go into a research project already convinced that their side is the only correct side, and anyone who disagrees with them must be ignorant or evil, then they haven’t found a good topic for an academic research paper.

Students who love sports, or the arts, or animals, or dental hygiene will want to write a term paper about the benefits of the particular sport, art, or animal that they love the best, or they’ll write about how important their dental dental hygiene dream job is to society at large.

But listing what’s great about a thing you already love (or listing what’s awful about a thing you already hate) doesn’t bring you too far out of their comfort zones — and that’s where students need to be in order to be ready for the real intellectual and personal growth that happens in college.

Because young people spend a lot of time on social media, and because social media is full of memes, attacks, advertisements, and slogans, I was very happy to come across this description of a robust fact-checking habit. I have certainly played my part in sharing inaccurate memes (such as my incomplete understanding of the Dunning-Kreuger effect), but I rather enjoy the fact-check category of my weblog (where I’ve posted corrections to memes about Star Trek’s interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, a conspiracy theory that claims NPR posted about the Jan 6 insurrection hours before the events turned violent), and a racist meme with made-up quotes allegedly spoken by Donald Trump. In some cases, the meme being spread is vicious; in other cases, it’s perfectly harmless, and I feel like a killjoy telling my social media friends that the inspiring news story about something that happened “last night” has been circulating online since 2007. However, unless we all take a moment to think before we re-share a meme, we’ll all be more likely to be victimized by false information from one source or another.

From the free book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-checkers

What people need most when confronted with a claim that may not be 100% true is things they can do to get closer to the truth. They need something I have decided to call “moves.”

Moves accomplish intermediate goals in the fact-checking process.  They are associated with specific tactics. Here are the four moves this guide will hinge on:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Read laterally.[1] Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

In general, you can try these moves in sequence. If you find success at any stage, your work might be done.

Michael A. Caulfield