I was teaching genetics in high school biology in Kentucky in 1969. One day before class, a student, careful that no classmates were nearby, pulled out and showed me a copy of ... The Thunderbolt...a publication of the American Nazi Party.
The feature story was an outrageous claim that African-Americans were more closely related to gorillas because they could produce hybrids and whites could not. The article had a picture of a very hairy black infant to “prove” the case.
I recognized that picture.
I wrote the term “hirsutism” on a slip of paper...and sent him to the library with instructions to look it up in the World Book encyclopedia.
He soon came back, and after class was over, he came up and whispered: “They lied, didn’t they.” I nodded....“Yes.”
He had found the encyclopedia entry on the wide range of infants that have this rare hirsute condition and realized how the neo-Nazis had fabricated their racist article.
We did not use the term “fake news” in 1969. We had fake news, but it was slow to spread in print. The readership was small. Now, with social media, such fake news could “go viral” overnight.
Today, both K–12 and higher education are rushing to battle fake news with so-called “information literacy” courses that have magic cures for detecting falsehoods.
But the internet is a vast wasteland—a needle of truth in a haystack of falsehoods.
I let my student teachers discover this themselves. I ask them for 10 accurate websites on the internet in a specific field that they choose. It takes them hours or even days. Technical search words or other literacy tricks have little effect.
And research backs this up. A study in the journal Pediatrics found the majority of online information on childhood diarrhea...is wrong...and sometimes fatal.
In one study by the University of Connecticut, seventh grade students were taught to become “research pros” by using RADCAB, a “critical thinking assessment tool for online information” teaching about Relevance, Appropriateness, Detail, Currency, Authority and Bias.
The Connecticut study directed students to use RADCAB on the..Pacific...Northwest... Tree Octopus website. The students found that the Tree Octopus website passed all the tests.
But when an actual expert was brought in to explain how the octopus only lives in the sea, nearly all of the students rejected the expert. They now had “ownership” of this falsehood.
This would not have happened if they had actually known something about an octopus. To fight fake information in the future, citizens are just going to have to know more content.
To return to the Neo-Nazi Thunderbolt article, my ability to de-fuse that terrible lie came directly from my having read through the World Book encyclopedia in grade school and remembering that picture over a decade later. Without that knowledge, I would have had to resort to an authoritative argument that would not have undermined the legitimacy.