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Fact checkers best historians, Stanford students at judging source credibility

(Courtesy of hocus-focus/Getty Images)

Fact checkers are more likely to assess the credibility of online information accurately compared to other “expert groups,” according to a report released earlier this October by researchers in the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG).

(Courtesy of hocus-focus/Getty Images).

SHEG, a cohort of scholars in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, gathered three groups of readers with varying degrees of scholarly expertise – ten historians, 25 Stanford undergraduates and ten fact checkers.

SHEG founder Sam Wineburg said he was personally surprised by his findings.

“Historians sleuth for a living,” he said. “Evaluating sources is absolutely essential to their professional practice. And Stanford students are our digital future. We expected them to be experts.”

Wineburg co-authored the report with Sarah McGrew, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education.

The researchers tasked their subjects to evaluate the credibility of information about bullying from two different online sources: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest consortium of children’s doctors worldwide, and the American College of Pediatricians (ACPed), a small, socially conservative group that formed in protest to the AAP’s advocacy for adoption by gay couples and prescribes psychotherapy for “homosexual attraction among youth.”

Though historians generally reported that both groups provided credible information and students were inclined to deem ACPed’s website more trustworthy, the fact checkers were quick to determine ACPed’s orientation.

Wineburg emphasized that the research objectives pertained not to questions of political alignment, but rather to issues to truth.

“These are tasks of modern citizenship,” he said. “If we’re interested in the future of democracy in our country, we have to be aware of who’s behind the information we’re consuming.”

In another iteration of their assessment, the researchers asked their participants to determine who financed a California lawsuit. Fact checkers — whom researchers said searched more and exhaustively and discerningly — quickly identified credible facts in this scenario as well.

McGrew and Wineburg found that fact checkers engaged in “lateral reading”: Although they would initially skim a webpage, they would search for comparisons and context by opening other websites in separate tabs. The researchers also found that fact checkers demonstrated a greater degree of “click restraint”: They were more judicious about which links they chose to open into webpages.

Students and historians, however, tended to read “vertically”: They would focus intently on the webpage in question.

McGrew and Wineburg found that in light of their strategies, students and historians were more likely to be swayed by academic citations or graphical elements, such as polished logos, on the webpage in question.

This research builds on similar work last year on students who were tricked by false information on the internet. Unlike the previous effort, this particular study aimed to analyze factual discernment among specific groups of “skilled” individuals, as opposed to everyday internet users.

“It’s the opposite of a random sample,” Wineburg said. “We purposely sought out people who are experts.”

Commenting on the results of the study, Wineburg urged the public to examine online information carefully and skeptically.

“Very intelligent people were bamboozled by the ruses that are part of the toolkit of digital deception today,” he said.


Contact Courtney Douglas at ccd4 ‘at’  


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Courtney Douglas

Courtney Douglas

Courtney Douglas is a senior staff writer. She served as Editor in Chief of The Daily's 254th volume and has worked for the paper since the beginning of her freshman year. Outside The Daily, she studies English and political science and is an avid long-distance runner. Originally from Coronado, California, she is an alumna of The Bishop's School.