I do a lot of work that I don’t cover here — in particular, I’m slowly putting together curriculum for the American Democracy Project on what the Stanford History Education Group calls Civic Online Reasoning. (I don’t show a lot of this work here because anything I publish on this blog alters the search results for the exercises and makes them less authentic.)
But as I’ve put together the exercises and tried to refine the UbD-style understandings I’m trying to hit, I keep finding one of the biggest understandings is what I call the “Abundant Web” assumption. Put simply, the web is qualitatively different than most information environments because of its abundance, but our processes still tend to economize as if information on the web was scarce.
What do I mean by this? Look at something that came to me today via a Twitter link.
It shows a unique sort of sun halo that supposedly appeared in Sweden. People are filming it — at least it looks like they are. So it probably isn’t just some sort of fake produced by a weird filter, right?
So how do you check this? Your first thought might be “Who is Massimo?” Or maybe you click the link and trace it up to Facebook where you find it was posted on a page called Severe Weather Europe, and we should look into them. They credit the video to a Twitter user named @vemdalen, which is a design company in Sweden. Who is this vemdalen, and what do they…
But I actually don’t do any of this. I follow the first rule of our Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and I check for previous work:
And I find an article in the Independent about it. The Independent is not the best newspaper anymore — it’s been severely degraded with clickbait over the years. But it’s still a newspaper, and when we go there we find that they are reporting this as fact and that they have linked an article explaining the phenomenon from a science website.
If we were a reporter, and this was a story we were working on, this probably wouldn’t be enough for us. But for a citizen trying to not retweet lies, it’s enough. And we get there in 90 seconds partially because we assume that on an abundant web if this thing really happened someone somewhere probably already looked into it.
There’s also the question of how we choose the Independent as our source. I know the Independent because over time I’ve seen it as a source for things and built up a mental model of what it does well and what it does poorly. Eventually all students should start to know a few resources like this — dry land that they can swim to when looking for a source. (Or in the case of the Independent a moderately squishy bog).
But you don’t have to know the source to do this. One of the prime techniques I use is searching for stories in Google News versus general Google search. Why? Because Google News is curated — sources are selected based on qualifying as real news sites. So what we’re doing when we search on Vemdalen, Sweden and click on Google News is we’re saying “Let’s start over on this, and try to get a news source that has at least a modicum of vetting applied to it.” It’s not going to be perfect: Google News makes mistakes. Sometimes news publications also have non-news content (promos, editorials) which are not held to the same standard as the rest of the source. And some of the sources they include just plain shouldn’t be included. But it filters out 98% of the junk for us on a task like this.
Again, not the level of precision we’d want as a reporter or scholar. But for a citizen, it’s probably good enough, as long as they are taught to use it correctly.
And that’s the other side of “The Web Is Abundant”. In a world with 100s of possible sources, so much of what you do is less about finding coverage than about limiting it through filters. Here we limit it by use of a curated news site. But because of the principle of abundance, we could be picky in other ways if we were looking at a different sort of story — we could filter by location, looking for local coverage. We could filter by date, either looking for the most recent developments, or the earliest possible reporting.
All of this is markedly different than what we tell students in our world of print scarcity. With print, there are few sources directly available to us, and to find and acquire new resources takes at least minutes and sometimes weeks. When you have a source in front of you you don’t throw it out, you interrogate it. The economics of this are different on the web, where lack of commitment to a source is a virtue, and we get to the truth more quickly by always assuming there’s a better source out there. We trade one resource for another without even bothering to read the first one. We need a media literacy that makes a virtue of this lack of commitment to initial resources rather than a fetish of investigative persistence with them.