The Web Requires a New Kind of Reading

Reading on the internet is a new kind of reading. Some of the skills we use when we read printed material still apply, but we need to develop new skills as well. Because almost anyone can post images and text to the internet, we have new questions about who is an expert, who is knowledgeable, and who trustworthy. Because texts link to texts and then to other texts creating hypertexts, we no longer read in a predictable linear fashion. There is a sense in which the entire internet is just one big text. And while the internet is full of helpful volunteers willing to share valuable knowledge, it is also full of pretenders, deceivers, and charlatans with political or criminal agendas.

I used to read the Los Angeles Times every morning. The paper was delivered about 6:30 am and I had read or skimmed most of it by 8:00. News stories covered the basic who, what, when, where, why in the first three paragraphs. Details followed, sometimes spiraling down to the very specific, but it was often enough to read the first three paragraphs of stories that interested me. This was my habit for decades. I always knew where I had read something, even to the page. If I discussed it with someone, they had read the same article. We had the same facts.

Now I still read the L.A. Times, but also the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sacramento Bee, and a vast selection of articles delivered through the Apple news app. I read everything on my iPad and I end up having little idea of where I read something. I know things, but I don’t know how I know them. I am exposed to a great deal of news and opinion, but it is an effort to sort it all out. Is this better? Well, yes and no. But one thing is clear: we need to develop a new skill set to sort through all of this information. We need to retrain our brains.

Traditional newspapers were never perfectly objective, but they made an attempt to be so, and they had procedures for fact-checking and policies in place to prevent the advertising department from influencing or even contacting the newsroom. Now they are struggling to survive, as readers and advertisers leave and shareholders demand more and more profits. They also have to compete with news aggregating sites that are often reporting on their reporting, without having to pay the expense of having reporters on the scene. In this kind of environment, how can we know what is true?

Four Moves

Mike Caulfield, in his very useful online book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” offers four moves for students who are trying to check the validity of information they find on the internet:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Caulfield also advises students to “check their emotions.” He says, “When you feel strong emotion–happiness, anger, pride, vindication–and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP. Above all, these are the claims that you must fact-check.”

Something Simpler and Deeper

Caulfield’s online book offers detailed procedures for implementing each one of these moves. It is certainly worth a look if you are assigning a full-blown research paper. However, it seems to me that we need something both simpler and deeper. Also, I think that Caulfield relies too much on finding out what other people think, instead of having the students think for themselves. We need a new way to read. Perhaps we could call it “skeptical reading” that leads to “informed reading.”

What Caulfield is getting at with “check your emotions” is what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: we enthusiastically accept information that confirms what we already believe and we resist information that runs counter to our own opinions. (This article. “Confirmation bias: 6 ways to recognise it and 5 ways to counter it,” and the included links offer a detailed account.) Google’s algorithms have confirmation bias built into them. Google wants to make us happy, so it shows us what we want to see. Different people doing the same search on their own computers will get different results. Trump supporters will see pro-Trump sources. Democrats will see liberal sources. It is all tailored to the individual. One solution is to search with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. But Facebook and other social media platforms have similar algorithms. Perhaps the question is “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to know the truth?”

Caulfield makes “check your emotions” a kind of unnumbered fifth step, a “habit of mind” rather than a move, but I think understanding and accounting for your own biases is a fundamental first step. The questions to ask are “Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?” This is related to the “believing game” and the “doubting game.” If you are inclined toward the believing game, try the doubting game first, and vice versa. We could associate this move with pathos.

Once we have thought about our own personal biases, we can start more objective moves. Caulfield’s second move is to “go upstream” to the original source. Because a lot of content on the internet is reporting on reporting, i.e. paraphrases, summaries, or commentary on other writer’s stories, a good move is to follow the links or do searches to find the original source. The questions here are “Where did this come from?” and “Who did the original reporting?” If there is no actual source, this is a big red flag. Caulfield recommends what he calls “reading laterally” at this point, by which he means doing searches to find out what other people think of this source and this writer. We could call this an “ethos investigation.”

At this point I am going to depart from Caulfield’s recommendations and make a more rhetorical move. The question to ask is “What is this writer or source trying to do?” This is a question about motives and purpose. Thinking about why a writer is saying what he or she is saying will likely reveal much about the writer’s agenda.

A Summary

To summarize, there are three moves in my simplification:

  • Check Personal Bias: Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?
  • Check Original Sources: Where did this come from? Who did the original reporting? What do other people think of this source and/or this writer?
  • Check Motives and Purposes: What is this writer or source trying to do?

I think these three moves are possible for students to remember and implement. These habits of mind will lead to informed reading.

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