What is credible? How do you know?

In an increasingly complex post-truth world, people in general – students and teachers in particular – struggle to discern credible sources of online information. Their ability to judge multiple sources of information has and will have a major impact on their collective ability to make decisions in a modern, democratic society.

This is the area of research I have been working through over the past month.

We need to better understand the challenges presented by a post-truth. As a term, post-truth is relatively new. Most of us probably became aware of post-truth with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. He didn’t invent post-truth but Trump and other politicians have used alternative facts as an every day tool with impunity.

What strategies and techniques can be developed to provide educators and students with appropriate tools to effectively evaluate what is credible and what is baseless information? Is this even possible to do?

In a world that possesses an abundance of information, more readily available than at any other time in history, we swim in a sea of disinformation, suspicion, and confusion (Chinn et al., 2021). Accordingly, our ability to make decisions that affect our everyday life is severely hampered (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). This is the world of post-truth; here, the forum of political debate can be filled with half-truths and outright lies. What is ‘true’ is up for debate on every news channel (Buckingham, 2019). The challenge of acquiring information has been complicated by several factors including the increased prevalence of misinformation; the outright rejection of established claims; the discrediting of facts over personal beliefs; a declining trust in the institutions that provide us with information and the fragmentation of that information (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020). 

 

This is not a new situation. Many generations have had to contend with information sources designed to distract and misinform. Thomas Jefferson witnessed the increased flow of political pamphlets brought about by the advent of movable type. While this technical innovation allowed for the spread of cheaply produced rhetoric and opinion, it also opened the door to a more questionable collection of reading material. Jefferson’s solution then is as relevant today. Rather than ban the half-truths and false claims of the pamphlet, Jefferson argued that people needed to be taught to discern truth from fiction (Wineburg & McGrew, 2019).

What are some features of a post-truth world? One common theme focuses on the inability of people to spot unreliable information. They may rely on a single source for their information or have little experience with fact-checking sources (Chinn et al., 2021). The widespread availability of digital information can also make it a challenge for people to decide who possesses expert information (2021). It cannot be taken for granted that the public has the skill set required to assess the trustworthiness of the experts they are reading. There exists the tendency for people to ‘choose’ their own expert opinion, especially when the information confirms previously held beliefs (Barzilai & Chinn, 2020).

This is an area that I would love to learn more about. Authors like Sam Weinburg and Jason Steinhauer who recently wrote History Disrupted: How Social Media and the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past are writing for a non-academic audience. Both, I think, would call themselves Internet entrepreneurs (Weinburg, p. 8, 2018). Both write for a general audience because it is this audience that needs to acquire the tools to assess what is credible information and what is a potentially dangerous fantasy. This is not an academic debate.

These few paragraphs were written as part of a doctoral paper. The more time I spend with academics, the more I am convinced that we need to have this debate outside of the academy. Over the next few posts, I will include more from this paper in the hope that someone finds this discussion important. Maybe this will encourage more discussion. Otherwise, what value does this piece really have?

This is a problem for everyone, but for educators how we develop 21st-century critical thinking skills is becoming an essential feature of their professional lives. How well do we understand this?

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