Facebook’s News Literacy Advice Is Harmful to News Literacy

Sometime yesterday, Facebook rolled out the largest media literacy campaign in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, most of what it contained was bad advice.

Here’s how Facebook wants you to tell truth from fiction on the web:

  1. Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
  2. Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.
  3. Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.
  4. Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
  5. Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
  6. Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
  7. Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
  8. Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
  9. Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
  10. Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.

Asleep yet? Scrolling and scanning? Bored out of your mind?

There Is No Evidence Any of This Works

Those who have followed my work here and elsewhere will recognize that this is the “checklist” approach to news literacy: look at an article and then see how closely the article displays the attributes of a fake story.

Here’s the research that shows that approach works:

Yeah. There’s actually no evidence that this approach works. And conversely, there’s quite a lot history that shows this model does not work. We actually already trained a generation of students with variants of this method. Sometimes we called it CRAAP. In K-12, it often went by the name of RADCAB. There are dozens of other variations, but they all look basically like this.

And it failed. It failed for a number of reasons, but four of the biggest are these:

  1. It takes too long. Imagine seeing a headline or story in your feed. Now apply this list. How long does it take? Can you do this for every story you want to share? Will you?
  2. It deals with surface features. Facebook says look at the About page. Guess what fake news will pay more attention to if people start doing that? The same with spelling, photos, dates. Fake news purveyors get better at looking like real sites every day.
  3. It targets fake news but not slanted claims. Most harmful news people deal with is not “fake”, but rather unsubstantiated or biased. The Facebook approach provides a set of methods that work on fake news, but not on that “Chocolate Cures Cancer” or “Prominent Scientist Says Global Warming Not Real” story.
  4. It doesn’t use the network. Most advice in this approach feels as if you were forced make a decision while your internet connection was down. Does it look good? Cite sources? How’s the spelling? But really, who cares? You have the entire internet at your disposal why are you still on this page?

There’s more bizarre stuff in the advice, which seems to have been developed before the more recent incarnations of fake news. The idea that multiple sources mean anything in a world of cut-and-paste clickbait is odd. Fake stories spread faster than real stories, and get copied more places.

There’s the “Look at the URL” advice, which is the one good tip in the bunch, but sadly amusing since the entity hiding the URL in the first place is Facebook:

If you really want people to look at the URL, maybe don’t make it the least noticeable item on the card?

There’s the timeline thing, where I’m just imagining a person about to repost an article pulling out some graph paper, stroking their chin and saying, “Hmm, let’s plot these dates in sequence and see if it’s a plausible timeline.”

Get Off the Page and Ask the Web

This is all ridiculous advice, and it actually is the precise opposite of what experts do. Expert fact-checkers don’t count misspellings or rely on the site’s about page to tell them the truth. You don’t go to the about page of a truly fake site and find a page that says “Site written by Macedonian teens and promoted by a Russian botnet.”

INT. APARTMENT (MACEDONIA)
TEEN ONE puts the finishing touches on the latest story linking Al Franken to a notorious smuggling ring.
TEEN ONE
They’ll never suspect this site is fake!
TEEN TWO
I know! What’s your address again, for the About page?

Expert fact-checkers don’t look at the site because they don’t trust the site. As we’ve said many times before, fact-checkers do the opposite of what Facebook is recommending here. They get off the page. They stop looking at what the page says about itself, and start learning what the network says about the page or claim. They look up the site in Wikipedia, or the cited experts in Google Scholar. They use the power of the network to check stuff on the network.

This Facebook advice? It’s indistinguishable, for the most part, from what you would have told students in 1995. And beyond the ineffectiveness of it, it has potential to do real harm. It was precisely these impulses — to judge resources by look and feel and what they say about themselves — that propagandists played on so expertly in 2016.

The history of technology is that the fakers are going to get even better at these things next time around. Yet the Facebook advice doesn’t even seem to realize how good they got at this in 2016.

There are better ways to do this. I’ve talked about them elsewhere, but briefly we have to show students and citizens how to effectively use networked approaches to check claims on the web. This sniff-test heuristic ain’t gonna cut it.

If you’re interested in alternative, web-native approaches to news literacy, you can try my new, completely free and open-source book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.

You should also read Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew’s Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to Truth, and the results of their Stanford study which showed that the major deficits of students with regard to news analysis were issues of web literacy and use.