Back-to-school special: fighting misinformation with a research librarian


With the end of summer, university students around the world are preparing to return to school. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, legal proceedings surrounding the January 6, 2021 insurgency, and ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the school year comes at a tumultuous time that comes with many digital rumors and false information.

To see how college students are learning to fight online misinformation and disinformation, our very own Madison Dapcevich spoke with Diane Prorak, reference and instructional librarian at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Prorak teaches students how to find course-related information, and as part of her job, she contacted our newsroom to find out more about how we do what we do. But because his work is invaluable in the fight against digital gossip, we wanted to know a bit more about his Important work.

Prorak teaches workshops for first and second year students, usually between the ages of 18 and 22.

“We teach research skills and evaluating information as part of their first-year writing classes,” she told Snopes. “We try to teach them how to search for information effectively and efficiently on their own.”

Here’s how his library helps students:

Snopes: As a professional who works daily with students, what are the most persistent online misinformation and disinformation trends?

Prorak: First, many students come to college with outdated notions about information, such as that a website with the .org domain is better than one with .com. Additionally, they spend so much time online that they tend to overestimate their abilities to identify misinformation and disinformation, as well as underestimate their susceptibility to believing false claims.

At the college level, logical errors cause them to stumble the most. Additionally, misinformation techniques like using fake experts can trip up students meeting real experts. [like] professors.

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

P: It will be more than one, and I describe the type of research to write an article on a subject, which is often the point where we work with students. In the process, we teach the evaluation of academic and popular sources, including the media.

  • Develop a solid question and brainstorm keywords (search terms).
  • Click Hold. They need to analyze the results, do a quick assessment, consider modifying their search in some way before jumping in (and using) one of the top results.
  • Check outside the source, also called sideways reading.

S: What kind of content is best for teaching children to check facts on their own?

P: We try to use a mix of current issues (e.g. climate change, COVID-19) so they can see how to demystify misinformation they’ve encountered. But we also try to choose less polarizing topics, such as weather events, natural phenomena, health information, or topics that students care about such as dorm life, relationships, or athletics.

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

P: They are often influenced by their peers and crave social acceptance, so if a peer, or someone they look up to, shares something, they will pay more attention to it and want to “like” it or share it for fit in. This can cause them to believe, or at least share, information that they might not have had it not been embedded in social relationships.

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

And then there are virtual and bot influencers. Just thinking about their effect on young adults is enough to blow anyone’s mind.

S: What are the most effective tools you have identified for students?

P: Search outside the source (side reading). Students generally learned to evaluate by checking off criteria while consulting a source. They can completely miss the point of a well-made greenwashing source, for example, if they don’t know how to research the organization that produces the source and discover that it is a group of industry pressure.

Image research is often new to our students, and they tend to enjoy it and are often surprised at how an image is used out of context, and the image has often been floating around online for some time.

S: What is your approach to teaching these strategies?

P: After providing background information and introducing tools and techniques, we try to include active learning activities in small groups in each session. Students are given links to information and then, using a variety of tools, are asked to evaluate the information and present a brief summary of their discovery to the class. In online classes we can use Zoom breakout rooms or for asynchronous classes we have homework they do.

S: Anything else you would like to add?

P: Although I have been teaching information assessment for some time, I am not satisfied with the current results. This is one of the reasons I use fact checkers to leverage their expertise. I would like to ask more fact checkers about their approaches to debunking and how these might apply to teaching students.

I also search the academic literature for methods to better enable students to learn how to resist and demystify misinformation. I studied the methods of “inoculation” (focusing on teaching certain disinformation techniques so that they recognize them when they are confronted with them) as well as the use and importance of stories or personal stories to engage people so they don’t believe misinformation. There’s a lot of academic work that I’m still digging into.


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