Confronting an Infodemic

COVID-19 created an information pandemic. Digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield is here to help.

Well before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Mike Caulfield was ready. In February, “it was really clear that the misinformation around it would be a very big deal,” said Caulfield, who is WSU Vancouver’s director of blended and networked learning.

Working with the National Writing Project, a group of teachers, researchers, writers and librarians who develop programs to help teach writing, Caulfield put together a website (infodemic.blog) in mid-February. The NWP had asked for something that would draw on a current topic. No one realized at the time how enormous that topic would become and how long it would be current.

Called “Sifting Through the Coronavirus Pandemic,” the website introduces skills that users can employ to sort fact from fiction. Caulfield says the skills can be easily learned in about an hour.

The acronym “SIFT” stands for the four steps Caulfield recommends to determine whether information is reliable:

  • Stop. If the information surprises you—or makes you feel like sharing it—just wait a minute. Don’t give in to your first reaction.

  • Investigate the source. Hover over the link to the user profile (desktop browser) or click it (mobile), and ask yourself if the source is what you expected and
    if you know it to be credible. See if there’s a relevant Wikipedia page for the source.

  • Find better coverage. Do a quick news search and see who else is reporting it.

  • Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context. See when the information was published. Click through and search the webpage for relevant terms—make sure they’re part of the original.

Caulfield introduced the SIFT model in a book for college students, called “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers,” which has been widely used around the country since it was published in 2017. He also runs the Digital Polarization Initiative, a cross-institutional initiative to improve civic discourse by developing web literacy skills in college undergraduates.

Caulfield did similar work around misinformation with Civix Canada (an organization supporting K – 12 civic education in Canada). The program, called CTRL-F Find the Facts (ctrl-f.ca), is designed to be used with Canadian high school students. In a video on the CTRL-F website, he says, “Although getting to absolute certainty is a never-ending task, getting confident enough to make the sort of decisions that you need to make is completely within your grasp, and a skill you can learn in a very short amount of time.”

The SIFT website caught the attention of the Washington Post, the New York Times, MIT Technology Review, Consumer Reports, Slate and many other publications and institutions. In March, the site had 40,000 views. “In a perfect world, I would have more time to go out and promote this,” he said, “but other things are intervening.”

That would be, in part, the regular classes and workshops he offers, in concert with WSU Vancouver IT's Academic Services, to help faculty get up to speed on remote teaching, which Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s ”Stay Home, Stay Healthy“ order made necessary. While WSU Vancouver was already offering many online learning elements, suddenly every faculty member had to know how to navigate the situation, whether that meant learning to use a web camera or designing online supports as a temporary substitute for face-to-face contact.

“Our faculty have been fairly adaptive to the new environment,” Caulfield said, “but even people who have taught online have never taught in a situation quite like this.” Even getting faculty the equipment they need can be difficult when demand for that equipment has created back orders and shortages nationwide.

Will there be long-term changes to the way the university teaches? “This crisis has really demonstrated how much students value face-to-face education, and I don’t see that changing,” Caulfield said. “But my expectation is that both students and faculty will become a little more flexible in what they expect and what they deliver. When you have flexibility, you are able to more directly meet the needs of students.” ■

Share this story: