How do we evaluate the authenticity of information presented online? And how do we teach our teens to do likewise? The ideas discussed below centre on the concept of media literacy, which is our ability to assess the accuracy and validity of the media we consume. Media literacy skills are more important now than ever before. There is a firehose of information online and without critical evaluation tools, it is easy to become overwhelmed, confused or deceived. Anyone can post nearly anything online at any time. Depending on where your teen is getting their information, there can be very few restrictions or quality control checks applied to what appears in our web browsers or social media feeds. It is imperative as responsible citizens that we use our critical thinking and analytical skills to evaluate the validity of content we consume, especially if we intend to share it with others. What follows are some strategies that you and your teen can use to help assess content and claims made online.
If you come across a story that seems hard to believe, consult a fact-checking website. There are many sites that specifically focus on verifying online stories, exposing hoaxes, and researching the origins and authenticity of claims. These sites aren't necessarily infallible. But you can start there because they are often quick to update information about emerging online claims. The best sites do a good job of "showing their work" and they aren't often proven wrong. Consulting one or more of these can be a quick and easy way to determine if a story or fact shared online is true, or at the very least, it can let you know if there are any obvious discrepancies.
It is also important to distinguish between reporting and editorialising when evaluating content online. "Reporting" involves stating the facts as they are known, without additional commentary. "Editorializing", on the other hand, introduces analysis and opinion into the presentation of facts. There is nothing wrong with this – it can help us better understand context and complicated information. We just need to know it when we see it. Together, you and your teen can examine the information and the authority of the person who is editorialising and decide what is more believable. What is the history of the accuracy of that person? Has evidence proven that they were wrong in the past? If so, how did they respond? What does the person/source have to lose or gain by saying what they are saying?
Understand that we are all subject to strong, often hidden inclinations to believe certain things over others. These are known as cognitive biases. Psychological research demonstrates, for example, that people are predisposed to believe the first piece of information they see on a particular topic. This makes it more difficult to change our minds when confronted with new information. We also tend to place more value in sources that align with or reaffirm our pre-existing beliefs. The consequence is that we often stop searching for evidence once we've found what we believe to be true. Part of a thorough research process is to look not just for evidence that supports one's view, but to be aware of contrary evidence.
Even a well-meaning social media citizen who actively seeks out additional information on a topic of concern may ultimately succumb to another common cognitive bias: information overload. Our brains can only process so much data, and overwhelming it can result in the opposite of what we desired. Namely, we have trouble sifting through it all to settle on a side. If you spend too much time reading Amazon reviews of TVs, for example, you might never click the "Buy Now" button. We have heard thoughtful people default to the old adage "I don't know what to believe anymore". In these moments, encourage your teen to take a break and come back to the question with a clear head later.
Tips for evaluating online content
There is a lot of information online to consume, analyse and act upon. Accepting assertions at face value can be problematic and potentially dangerous. Taking the time to carefully consider all that is being claimed is a necessary part of living in an Internet-fuelled world. At some point, we need to take a stand on who and what we believe, based on all available information. With these tips, you and your teen can practise using your judgement and make an informed determination.