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Study: Historians Easily Fooled by Unreliable Content

October 30, 2017
 
 

A study of the digital literacy of history scholars at Stanford University has found that many are bad at evaluating the credibility of information online.

The small study, published by the Stanford History Education Group on the Social Science Research Network, pitted Ph.D.-level historians against undergraduate students and professional fact-checkers. It found that many students, and some historians, were easily deceived by unreliable sources online.

In a press release, Sam Wineburg, founder of SHEG, said that he would have expected the history scholars “to be experts,” as evaluating sources is “absolutely essential” to the professional practice of historians.

Fact-checkers quickly determined the reliability of an organization by taking a quick scan of its website before opening new browser tabs to determine the organization’s reputation from other sources. However, historians and students focused on just the information they found on the organization’s webpage. By reading vertically, rather than laterally, these groups were frequently taken in by unreliable indicators such as professional-looking logos and scholarly references.

Wineburg said that when evaluating information online, skepticism, rather than knowledge or old-fashioned research skills, may be more useful. “Very intelligent people were bamboozled by the ruses that are part of the tool kit of digital deception today,” he said.

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