Years ago, I used to teach students to look deeply at documents, and wring every last bit of signal out of them, performing a complex mental calculus at the end: does the story seem plausible? Does the language seem emotional? What is the nature of the arguments? Any logical fallacies? Is it well sourced? Does it look like a professional website?
Such approaches fail on the web for a number of reasons:
- Students are really bad at weighting the various signals. A clickbait-ish ad on the sidebar can cause students to throw out the website of a prestigious news organization, while the clean interface of xxxxxx, a prominent node in the disinformation ecosystem, engenders confidence.
- They don’t work under time pressure and at volume. Most of the online information literacy taught in higher education is built around students choosing six or seven resources for a term paper, where students may have several hours to spend vetting resources. In the real world we have minutes at most, seconds at worst.
- Engagement with these sources is problematic in itself. The traditional academic approach is to evaluate resources by reading them deeply. This is a profoundly inappropriate tactic for disinformation. There is ample evidence that reading disinformation, even with a critical eye, can warp one’s perspective over time. From the perspective of bad actors, if you’re reading the site, they’ve won.