People of SU / Research

Combatting Misinformation

Written by Allison Nitch

August 29, 2022

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Lemieux Library staff members discuss how media literacy has changed over the years, the SIFT method and their preferred approach to evaluating information.

Lydia Bello, science and engineering librarian, and Jennifer Bodley, adjunct librarian, collaborated on a blog article, “SIFT-ing Through Information Online” to provide the campus community with guidance on media literacy, which is being critically engaged when receiving, finding, evaluating, using, creating and sharing media, particularly in an online environment. While some question the legitimacy of Wikipedia, learn how it’s their first trusted line of defense in avoiding misinformation.

Q: What prompted you both to write a blog article that addresses media literacy and misinformation? 

JB: We were asked to write about misinformation, mostly prompted from events happening in the world. I think at the time the Russia-Ukraine news cycle had started and ... COVID-19 has obviously been in the news cycle for a long time and there’s a lot of other issues where misinformation is very problematic with information getting to the public.

LB: In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, there was information flowing fast and furious. A lot of it misinformation and unverified … and a lot of people here [at SU] are directly impacted by those current events. Along with that, Jennifer had just finished teaching a workshop on these skills and it all sort of fell into place that we thought this might be a good time to offer a reminder.

JB: News is a fire hose, so whenever you have that fire hose obviously you don’t have checks and balances and controlled dissemination of factual reporting.

Q: What are some of the sources where misinformation is the highest or spreads fastest (i.e., social media/specific platforms, news media, etc.)? 

LB: Some of the really obvious places include social media designed to spread information quickly. We’ve all seen articles and research about the addictive nature of social media, about how it’s designed to engage you in order to create advertising dollars. Because of that, it’s a core place where information moves.

Misinformation and disinformation also move quickly when there’s a strong sense of emotion attached to it. Emotions like fear or anger are ones that come to mind, but also vindication, satisfaction and a really strong desire to help. When those emotions are attached or are involved, they help move the flow of misinformation on these platforms really quickly as well.

JB: We’re talking about social media being behind a lot of misinformation and disinformation, but the mainstream media also reports on social media and we also know that governing bodies and other institutions of power disseminate a lot of information through social media.

It’s about figuring out what’s okay. I can use the social media from this organization because it’s a quote ‘good’ organization. But then I’m supposed to be able to spot this ‘bad’ information from this other social media channel.

We’re in a flat environment (lacking indicators around credibility). Years ago, when you went to the checkout stand, you could tell what was a tabloid like The National Enquirer by the paper it was printed on, the colors used and the sensational headlines. There was a tactile or concrete way that you could process and evaluate. And right now, everything is just in this flat environment, so it's just that much harder to process.

Q: As librarians, how do you view your roles when it comes to combatting misinformation?

LB: One of the key parts of our jobs is helping our students, faculty and staff build skills to navigate the information environment (through courses, research services, etc.). The first thing you think of when you think librarians is that we help students navigate the library and navigate the information we have in the library, which is its own type of complex information environment.

We see those skills transferring to teaching students how to navigate the world and the information environment outside of their assignments as well. Helping students build those skills and then also helping them understand that they need to be engaged with the information they see on a day-to-day basis, not necessarily as passive consumers.

We [as humans] don’t innately know how to navigate information and there’s a lot of talk about someone who has grown up around technology, but even young people don’t innately know. It depends on who has access to what sort of technology growing up and that’s very financially based. It also depends on if you’re actually taught those skills or not.

A good part of our job is explicitly teaching those skills and teaching them in such a way that they fit with their day-to-day lives.

JB: As librarians, we’re teaching students particularly in content-related classes. When we teach students in an introductory chemistry or psychology class, we aren’t working with domain experts [in those subjects]. Domain experts already know seminal works and know prominent, authoritative researchers and organizations within their domain who are disseminating information. Domain experts can go to these sources directly or see them quickly in search results. Domain novices don’t have that head start when evaluating information. They have to evaluate a lot of unfamiliar and complex information with no specialized knowledge.   

Take for example health information. A student could say, ‘I know the CDC, I understand the government structures, so I know that the CDC would potentially be a good source.’ Somebody else could say, ‘Oh, you know doctor so and so has this blog, I think that would be a good source.’ This directly ties into what we teach them in the classroom and how they apply that in their lives outside the classroom.

Q: Anything you would like to highlight or expand on regarding Michael Caufield’s work/approach (SIFT Method, etc.)?

JB: Caulfield’s approach is kind of simplistic, but he specifically created it so that you could use it in that flat environment. His method helps you recontextualize information.

LB: It’s grounded in a Stanford Graduate School of Education study on how students navigate the credibility of information online. There have been updates to this research recently, but one of the original studies was from 2016.

Also, I want to emphasize the SIFT method isn’t like a checklist or a long, arduous process.

It’s supposed to be a quick fact-checking habit. … It’s designed to help you decide whether you want to spend more time on a source. It’s supposed to be something that you can just build in your daily practice of consuming information on a day-to-day basis. A lot of times I’ll investigate sources on Wikipedia for the original source if I’ve never heard of it before. Caufield calls it the Wikipedia Trick—checking to see what somebody says about a source and figure out if it’s a known site for misinformation.

Q: What are some ways people can spot and/or avoid misinformation? 

LB: Because so many things around this flat environment are on the Internet, we’re losing all these contextual clues and it’s really easy to convince someone that something is true or something is fake. Known misinformation sites can look really well polished, have great web design and a really specific tone and a well-known and respected scholarly article or source.

… All of this is why having SIFT as a habit knowing that it takes 30 seconds or less is really helpful so you don’t waste time looking for clues or hints. Sometimes misinformation is not designed to be actively harmful—it’s satire or something else that’s been moved to a completely different context.

Q: Are there any additional points, resources or intersections of media literacy/misinformation research you would like to mention?

JB: This isn’t going away anytime soon or ever so there’s no way we can legislate our way out of this. Corporate responsibility is not going to get rid of this. Everything from the Australian wildfires to war in Ukraine to school board meetings. I mean there’s absolutely nothing that's immune to misinformation.

To view the full Lemieux Library blog article, visit https://libguides.seattleu.edu/blog/SIFT-ing-Through-Information-Online.

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