You Gotta Believe Me

YGBM Technologies and Higher Education

Rainbows End is a brilliant 2006 science fiction novel by Vernor Vinge. In the book, he describes a world undergoing ever-increasing change after the technological singularity—a premise that the invention of artificial superintelligence will trigger a runaway technological growth that results in unfathomable changes in human civilization. I’m starting to think that what the author envisioned for 2025 is quite possible.

In the novel, Vernor introduces the concept of You Gotta Believe Me (YGBM) technologies—technology designed to manipulate people’s minds through ubiquitous media. As I hear about hacks where foreign governments attempt to “manipulate” the outcomes of a Presidential election and terms that have become part of the vocabulary of today’s world such as “fake news,” disinformation, and others—I wonder. It’s all too familiar to read of hacks into individual’s marketing profiles like those used on Amazon and others, which enables YGBM messages to be customized.

Think about the constant bombardment of Facebook posts and Tweets with definite agendas. You gotta’ believe me that YGBM is not a complete fantasy of a science fiction writer.

How Will This Impact Higher Education?

As educators, have you ever wondered if the students in your classroom ­understand how the internet works? Are our students nothing more than sheep living at the mercy of the YGBM wolves?

In a study conducted by Northwestern University, 102 students were asked to find answers online to a question about something that personally related to them. Students blindly trusted the search engine to put the most reliable results first while ignoring source content from the sponsor organization and the article’s author—over 25% of students indicated they chose a source because it was the first search result.

 

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Image Credit: Sage Ross, Advanced editing workshop at Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit, 2011-07-09, CC BY-SA 3.0

In another research study conducted at Stanford University, researchers administered assessments to evaluate middle school, high school and college students’ ability to judge online information.  They analyzed over 7,804 responses from students. At every level, the researchers found students’ lack of preparation startling.  Middle school students could not tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students took a fictitious chart at face value; and college students unquestioningly accepted a domain ending in -.org as legitimate.

It’s a huge issue when our students accept digital information before they know if a site is trustworthy. It’s become so sophisticated to mask one’s true intentions and ownership on the web that it’s naïve to rely on the same set of skills used for reading print.

How Can We Prepare Students?

It is becoming more and more critical we teach our students fact-checking strategies. Stanford researchers Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew identify three strategies we can teach students to follow the best practices of professional fact-checkers.

  • When landing on an unfamiliar site, the first thing fact-checkers do is leave it. Fact-checkers use the vast resources of the internet to determine where the information comes from before they read it. They read the internet laterally, jumping off the original page to open a new tab and search for the name of the organization or its president.
  • Second, fact-checkers know to be cautious of the About page. If a site masquerades its true intentions, it can surely pull the wool over our eyes with a concocted About page.
  • Third, fact-checkers look past the order of search engine results. People who trust Google to sort pages by reliability have a fundamental misunderstanding of how Google works. For example, Google by default will take your own past searches into account when returning results, which can lead to confirming your own biases.  Fact-checkers regularly scroll to the bottom of search results in a quest to make an informed decision about where to click first they mine URLs and abstracts for clues.

Wineburg and McGrew point out that not only is fact-checking not taught in school, many high schools have special filters that direct students to already vetted sites. A whole generation of bubble children without the skills needed to ward off the YGBM social media feeds and internet sites that continuously float across their digital worlds are entering higher education—and it’s up to us to teach them fact-checking strategies to vet the internet.

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References

Hargittai, E, Fullerton L, Menchen-Trevino, E, and Thomas, KY. (2010) Trust online: Young adults’ evaluation of web content.  International Journal of Communications 4. 468-494.

Wineburg, S and McGrew, S (Dec 13, 2016). Column: Most teens can’t tell fake from real news.  PBS Education.  Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/column-students-cant-google-way-truth  View Oct 24, 2017

Wineburg, S, McGrew, S,  Breakstone, J, and Ortega, T. (2016). Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning.  Stanford Digital Repository. Available at: http://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934 View Oct 24, 2017

Author: modelelearning

Our team develops student-centered blended and online courses at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, MI.

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