Back to School Special: Battling Misinformation with a Research Librarian

Diane Prorak is teaching incoming students to identify and refute false information online.

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back to school: battling misinformation with a university librarian
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With summer winding down, university students around the world are preparing to go back to school. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, court proceedings surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the school year comes at a tumultuous time that brings with it loads of digital rumors and false information. 

To see how university students are learning to battle mis- and disinformation online, our own Madison Dapcevich sat down with Diane Prorak, a reference and instruction librarian at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Prorak teaches students how to find information related to coursework, and as part of her work, she reached out to our newsroom to learn more about how we do what we do. But because her work is invaluable in fighting the digital rumor mill, we wanted to learn a bit more about her important work. 

Prorak teaches workshops for first- and second-year college students, generally around the ages of 18-22.

“We teach research skills and evaluation of information as part of their first-year writing courses,” she told Snopes. “We try to teach them to do information research themselves efficiently and effectively.” 

Here’s how her library is helping students:

Snopes: As a professional who works with students daily, what are some of the most persistent online trends pertaining to mis- and disinformation?

Prorak: First, many students come to college with some outdated notions about information, such as that a website with the domain .org is better than one with .com. In addition, they spend so much time online that they tend to overestimate their skills at identifying mis- and disinformation, as well as underestimating their susceptibility to believing false claims.

At the college level, logical fallacies trip them up the most. Also, misinformation techniques like using fake experts can trip up students who are meeting actual experts [like] professors.

S: When teaching students how to conduct their own research online, what is your first step?

P: This will be more than one, and I’m describing the type of research for writing a paper on a topic, which is often the point where we are working with students. In the process, we teach evaluation of academic and popular sources, including media.

  • Develop a solid question and brainstorm keywords (search terms). 
  • Click restraint. They need to scan the results, do cursory evaluation, consider changing their search in some way before just jumping into (and using) one of the top results.
  • Check outside the source, also known as lateral reading.

S: What sort of content is best for teaching children to do their own fact checking? 

P: We try to use a mix of current issues (e.g., climate change, COVID-19) so that they may see how to debunk misinformation they have encountered. But we also try to pick less polarizing topics, such as weather events, natural phenomena, health information, or topics on the mind of college students such as dorm life, relationships or athletics.

S: What about the social media and digital landscape do you find to be most threatening for students?

P: They are often influenced by peers and seeking social acceptance, so if a peer, or someone they admire, shares something, they will pay more attention to it and want to “like” it or share it to fit in. This can lead them to believe, or at least share, information that they may not have if it were not tangled up with social relationships.

I think they are also caught up in the world of social media influencers and may not internalize, or perhaps not resist, the commercial aspects of how influencers’ “information” might be tainted by commercialism.

And then there are the virtual and bot influencers. Thinking of their effect on young adults is enough to blow anyone’s mind.

S: What are some of the most effective tools that you’ve identified for students?

P: Searching outside the source (lateral reading). Students generally have been taught to evaluate by checking off criteria while looking at a source. They can completely miss the point of a well done green-washing source, for example, if they don’t know to search the organization producing the source and find out that it is an industry lobby group.

Image searching is often new to our students, and they tend to enjoy that and are often surprised how an image is used out of context, and that the image has often been floating around online for a while.

S: What is your approach to teaching these strategies?

P: After providing background information and introducing tools and techniques, we try to include small group, active-learning activities in every session. Students are given links to information and then, using various tools, are asked to evaluate the information and present a brief summary of their finding to the class. In online classes, we can use Zoom breakout rooms, or, for asynchronous classes, we have assignments they complete.

S: Anything else you’d like to add?

P: While I have been teaching the evaluation of information for a while, I am not satisfied with the current outcomes. That is one of the reasons I am reaching out to fact-checkers to tap into their expertise. I would love to interview more fact-checkers about their approaches to debunking and how those might apply to teaching students.

I am also researching the academic literature for methods for students to better learn to resist and debunk misinformation. I have been looking into “inoculation” methods (focusing on teaching certain misinformation techniques so they recognize them when faced with them) as well as the use and importance of narrative or personal stories in engaging people so they will not believe misinformation. There is a lot of scholarly work out there I am still digging into.