News and misinformation

Laptop on desk showing Twitter.

In the internet era, it is more difficult than ever to be able to separate fact from fiction. Helping people become web literate is Michael Caulfield’s passion.

Higher education has always aimed to help students become savvy consumers of information. It’s standard practice in college-level writing to think critically, base your work on reliable sources and document them for your readers.

But like the rest of society, higher education was not prepared for the internet age. When anyone can click to spread information rapidly, who knows what’s reliable anymore? The deluge of content on social media platforms, email, instant messages and more may be impulsive or thoughtful, “fake news” or authentic. Figuring out what to believe takes work.

Michael Caulfield has been thinking about this subject for a long time. Caulfield, who is director of blended and networked learning at WSU Vancouver, is a prolific and nationally prominent expert on learning how to tell whether news and information can be trusted or not.

The past couple of years have clarified that a critical aspect of web literacy is learning to become effective consumers as well as producers of information. That is, we all need to know how to tell whether information is reliable, and how to share information responsibly as well.

“We live in a world where everybody is now a publisher,” Caulfield said. “You can repost, share, comment, retweet, Tumbl, Instagram it—whatever you do, you’re a publisher, and if you’re passing along information to other people, you’ve got to take the two or three minutes [he says a basic check can take 90 to 120 seconds] to make sure it’s not completely false. … That doesn’t seem to be a heavy tax on sharing. If you can’t take a few minutes to make sure it’s correct, you shouldn’t be in the business of publishing stuff, even to your circle of friends.”

In the beginning

Caulfield’s passion for the subject and his expertise have evolved through both his professional life and his personal interests. He has spent part of his working life helping faculty in positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Keene State College and now WSU Vancouver integrate web tools into the classroom.

These skills are necessary not only for identifying political misinformation, but also for research in the classroom and on the job.

Caulfield began digging into the subject in 2004 while developing search engines for a news archiving company. “You start to think about what is it you really want when you’re searching,” he said. “And once you’re tuned into this, there’s a slow accumulation of tricks … like learning how to use date filters to find the original source of a story or, more recently, figuring out whether a user is Twitter-verified or not and what that means.”

In case you’re wondering, it means Twitter has deemed the account to be of public interest and has verified that the information is coming from a real person with a real Twitter account. Verification is signified by a little white checkmark on a blue badge, and it appears on the account’s profile and next to the account name in search results. Twitter may delete accounts that misuse the badge.

In the classroom

Last spring, Caulfield piloted a fact-checking module he is developing to help undergraduates learn web literacy skills. Ultimately intended for use in classrooms in any discipline throughout the country, the module was incorporated into a neuroscience capstone course at WSU Vancouver taught by Allison Coffin, an assistant professor who runs a blog on science communication, Communicatalyst.

Coffin invited Caulfield to visit the class first. “He taught us (the students and me!) how to trace a claim to its source, how to learn more about a source’s author, and how to trace a picture to see if it is legitimate,” she said. The students worked in pairs fact-checking online claims in neuroscience, cognitive science or biomedical science that had recently gone viral. For example, they looked into claims that bald men are sexier and that learning music increases one’s IQ. (Status is mixed on both, Coffin reported.)

The students submitted their results in the form of a wiki. That is, they posted it to a collaborative website that anyone can read (although you need login credentials to post and edit). Wikis are often used by business teams for collaboration. The students also gave presentations and had to defend their positions. One student wrote a post for the Communicatalyst blog titled “Science News and Fact-Checking.”

Coffin plans to use the fact-checking module again in spring 2018. “I recommend it for any faculty member who wants his or her students to learn more about digital literacy,” she said. “You can avoid political claims entirely … so it’s appropriate for many types of courses.”

With the wiki format, not only do the students articulate for themselves how to tell if news is legitimate, but they also contribute to what Caulfield calls “‘our collective information environment.’ In the process of learning the skills they contribute back to society by submitting their fact checks in a way that is Google-able.”

In a democracy

Caulfield’s writings and his advice are readily available online. He has written an online book, “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers,” a succinct, practical, step-by-step approach filled with tips and tricks. He writes a highly informative blog, Hapgood (, where links to student work from Coffin’s class have been posted. He published an article last spring on Medium, “How ‘News Literacy’ Gets Web Misinformation Wrong,” presenting his quick web literacy fact-checking process and why it is more effective than commonly taught “news literacy” techniques.

He is developing and will run the just-launched national Digital Polarization Initiative—part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project. DigiPo, as it is called, is a cross-institutional initiative to improve civic discourse by developing web literacy skills in college undergraduates. In addition to the Coffin class at WSU Vancouver, Caulfield piloted the fact-checking modules in an environmental issues class at Western Kentucky University and a digital media literacy class at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

Caulfield has been featured on “The Today Show,” the New York Times, NPR and ABC News websites, and in many other news sources. He is also the emerging technologies and innovative practices editor for the EDUCAUSE Review, published by a nonprofit association that helps those who lead, manage and use information technology in higher education.

Why devote so much time and effort to this cause?

Partly because it’s so important to democracy to stop the spread of misinformation. It’s true that fake news has always been around, Caulfield said, but “what is relatively new is the rapidity with which it can spread. You can get from the invention of something that’s completely false to the halls of Congress in about four hours today.”

As the word “viral” suggests, the spread of information can be compared to the spread of disease. Disease has always existed, but certain environments (a close quarters such as a cruise ship, conference center or hotel) allow it to spread rapidly. You won’t ever eradicate disease, but you can teach people good hygiene and stop it from spreading in such an environment. “You need to adopt certain practices to mitigate the effects of the environment,” he said.

“If you can be that person who washes your virtual hands before handling food, then you can be a part of stopping this,” he said. “It just requires enough people to slow that down, to get us into a livable zone.”

In the introduction to “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers,” Caulfield writes: “As many people have noted, the web is both the largest propaganda machine ever created and the most amazing fact-checking tool ever invented. But if we haven’t taught our students those capabilities, is it any surprise that propaganda is winning?”

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This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download or view the Fall 2017 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.