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Evaluating Online Information: Lateral Reading

What is Lateral Reading?

Stanford Study on Fact Checking ability

In 2017, a group of researchers in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University conducted a study in which they asked fact checkers, PhD historians, and Stanford undergraduates to examine the websites of the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Each group was asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of the two organizations. All of the fact-checkers were able to determine that the American Academy of Pediatrics was the legitimate professional organization, while the American College of Pediatricians was actually a cloaked hate group with a hidden agenda. Only 50% of the historians, and 20% of the Stanford undergraduates were able to identify the Academy as the legitimate professional organization. The researchers suggest that the fact-checkers were able to sniff out the cloaked hate group because they didn't just stay on the organizations' websites. They opened new browser tabs and searched for information about each group using Google and Wikipedia. The historians and undergraduates, however, mostly stayed on each organization's website, read the "about" section, and looked for things like misspellings and banner ads to determine trustworthiness.  So-called "fake news" websites and organizations with a hidden agenda are getting very good at deception, and, in order to be responsible Internet users, we need to be more vigilant about verifying our sources.

One strategy that we can use is "lateral reading." Good lateral readers use the simple techniques of the fact-checkers in the Stanford study example.

  • When you find information from a source you haven't encountered before, do some research about the source BEFORE deciding whether you should listen to anything the source has to say.
  • Try to determine a consensus about the source by researching it using Google and Wikipedia. You can search for any of the following key components:
    • Publication (Usually best)
    • Funding organization (Can often be found in the website's "about" page)
    • Author
    • Content (Cut-and-paste the title of the website into Google)
  • Read a minimum of 3 to 5 new sources to see what they have to say about your original source.
  • If you can't find 3 to 5 sources, that is information in itself. It means your original source doesn't have an established reputation. Proceed with caution.
  • Once you determine a consensus from these new sources, make a judgment call about the original source's trustworthiness.

If you would like a detailed explanation of how lateral reading works, please watch the video below.

For more information, please see:
Wineburg, Sam and McGrew, Sarah, Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information (October 6, 2017). Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. 2017-A1 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3048994 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3048994

Lateral Reading Demonstration