Years ago the emergence of the information available on the internet seemed like a big gift to intellectual development. Suddenly in response to any inquiry, generated in under a second, were millions of results. All you had to do is ask, and the internet answered. So what went wrong?
Two things went wrong. The first is that we believe the answers. Second, the answers are corrupting our common truths. Facts don’t matter, in case you haven’t noticed, but the internet is not helping us find the facts. Long before we started using Al Gore’s invention (not a fact), the organizers of the internet were deciding how we would use it, through the technical device called a router (the below quote is real):
“These routers originated in the 1960s as ARPANET, a military project whose goal was a computer network that was decentralized so the government could access and distribute information in the case of a catastrophic event. Since then, a number of Internet Service Providers (ISP) corporations have added routers onto these ARPANET routers. There is no single owner of these Internet routers, but rather multiple owners: The government agencies and universities associated with ARPANET in the early days and ISP corporations like AT&T and Verizon later on. Asking who owns the Internet is like asking who owns all the telephone lines. No one entity owns them all; many different entities own parts of them.”—Medium (Downloaded on Sept. 20, 2020). How does the Internet work?
The Cult of Personality
Physically the internet is a collection of computers and wireless devices sending bits of data to each other, but conceptually, on top of all the layers called links and security, lie application packages that direct our answers. And if we add in advertising, we can see that the answers we direct toward any inquiry circle around the inquirer’s interests. Poof, facts begone. The more personal the search, the happier the searcher will be, right? The internet is wrong.
Enter any conspiracy theory, any politician who says anything they want, any person who tells you something they believe and will not listen to your side of the conversation. The fact divide is widening and the democracy is therefore threatend because without some common ground, groups tend to break apart.
Such organizations as Factcheck.org and Poynter.org work on helping users become media-wise. Media Literacy may be the real answer here and some recent examples point to that work:
“New York Times: These Students Are Learning About Fake News and How to Spot It
The Des Moines Register: Digital info literacy group MediaWise brings info to first-time voters
The Philadelphia Inquirer: There’s so much coronavirus information out there. Here’s how to make sense of it.
Student Thinking Today
The Stanford History Education Group conducted a study that tested student’s civic online reasoning and found some very troubling results:
From June 2018 to May 2019, we administered an assessment to 3,446 students, a national sample that matches the demographic profile of high school students in the United States. The six exercises in our assessment gauged students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet. The results—if they can be summarized in a word—are troubling:
Fifty-two percent of students believed a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries (the video was actually shot in Russia) constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the U.S. Among more than 3,000 responses, only three students tracked down the source of the video, even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse.
Two-thirds of students couldn’t tell the difference between news stories and ads (set off by the words “Sponsored Content”) on Slate’s homepage.
Ninety-six percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility. Instead of investigating who was behind the site, students focused on superficial markers of credibility: the site’s aesthetics, its top-level domain, or how it portrayed itself on the About page.
Nearly all students floundered. Ninety percent received no credit on four of six tasks.
Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health. A polluted information supply imperils our nation’s civic health. We need high-quality digital literacy curricula, validated by rigorous research, to guarantee the vitality of American democracy.
Education moves slowly. Technology doesn’t. If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty.—Stanford History Education Group
Ask the Internet What’s Wrong
What can we do to help students today navigate the wrong internet? To echo the report above, we need high-quality digital literacy, rigorous research, and collaborative confirmation. What does that look like in schools? First of all, open a new tab in your browser, get the first answer, then open a new tab and ask the same question to a different group to get a second answer. Determine the difference. Find a third source of information and when these answers begin to link up, the facts begin to be confirmed across the three. Ask the student next to you what they think.
Always try to question your first answer given by the internet. When you get an answer from a group, ask yourself what that group’s motivations are in providing that answer. Keep a skeptical eye out. Question, don’t assume, and move through humble but rigorous research. The real answers to your questions will probably change over time as you refine your research. Let these answers emerge.
Question what I have said to you.