It Must be True. It’s on the Internet.
By Judy Berman
An endangered tree octopus? A subway in Central Florida? A bogus French model shows up for a date? Just how gullible are we?
One researcher says too many believe what they see, just because it’s on the Internet.
Florida is flat as a pancake. Mountains are nonexistent and hills are merely speed bumps, hardly worth mentioning.
So, imagine my surprise when I found Merritt Island – about 15 minutes from where I live – has a subway system. I mean we don’t even have cellars because the state’s built over a swamp.
But there it was photos and all. Impressive figures from history linked to various stages of the subway system: Dr. Wernher von Braun, President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton.
It had to be true. I saw it on the Internet. Only it wasn’t real.
That’s one of the stumbling blocks about teaching research to seventh-graders. They see a site that says a current celebrity died – the NEXT day – and they think it is true. I mean. It must be. Or, the Internet wouldn’t post it.
During reports on innovators – creators of new products and ideas – students shared 15 interesting things they learned.
In a report on Steve Jobs, one student told the class that he was fired from Apple because he was gay.
I was flabbergasted and asked where she found that information, because he was fired over a power struggle in the company he formed. She showed me the sites she researched.
One said: When Steve Jobs was younger, he dated “JOHN BAEZ.”
“Uh, I think that’s supposed to be JOAN BAEZ, the folk singer.” Sure enough. (We checked several other sites that verified this.) But my student was too young to know the cultural reference to Joan Baez, so she was unaware of the disinformation – intentional or accidental – provided on that one site.
It became a teachable moment. My class had an impromptu chat about trusting the reliability of some sources on the web … and double-checking facts.
A researcher at the University of Connecticut, Donald Leu, is concerned that the Facebook generation of kids cannot distinguish between fact and fiction online.
“Most students simply have very little in the way of critical evaluation skills,” Leu is quoted saying in an article in the “Daily Mail Online.”
To put his theory to the test, he showed students a fabricated site about an “endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus” to test their ability to evaluate information they see online.
Sad to say, as improbable as the story was, the students bought it. Even when researchers showed the kids that the information was made up, some still insisted on the tree octopus’ existence.
Science teachers at our school use this site to develop their students’ online reading and critical evaluation skills. Leu said these skills are needed to meet college and workforce demands.
At least the students are one-up on the beautiful, gullible blonde in the State Farm ad who was about to go on a date with a French model she met on the Internet. The “model,” Eric Filipkowski, (obviously a fraud), gives a sly smile, says “Bonjour” without a trace of a French accent, and then walks off with the girl.
A clever ad. It is a cautionary tale for students AND adults to carefully examine any information that’s in print, on TV and the Internet. Otherwise, you could be the fall guy in a scam to relieve you of your money.
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Florida Today’s Chris Kridler, a former colleague, wrote about the subway spoof: http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060509/COLUMNISTS0106/605090306/1047/LIFE&nclick_check=1
Funny but not funny as it’s true. When I worked in human resources I spent a good bit of time debunking things that would tork up employees. We need to teach deductive reasoning skills (as Sherlock Holmes would say). It isn’t only the kids who are gullible either!
So true, Kate. I told my students that many adults are guilty of this as well. They pass on things they see on the Internet that they believe is the gospel. It’s not funny because many are duped by these posts that are linked to spam, etc.
My daughter’s English teacher showed the class a website about spaghetti trees. Most of them believed it, and this was about twelve years ago. It can only be worse today.
I haven’t heard about the spaghetti trees. I’ll check that out. Charles, I’m frequently amazed when I see things posted on Facebook as fact. Adults and children are taken in too many times – promises to lose tons of weight instantly, make a fortune by sitting around and doing nothing, and by politicians and special interests who want to sway us to their opinions.
One of the most sad scams online is where people pose as in need of funds for animals, and take good-hearted but clueless people to the cleaners.
Rumpy, you’re right. People want to help and they want to believe. But they really do need to check things out before donating to any causes.
Great piece, on an issue that I often worry about; it’s a drum that you can’t beat too loudly.
I get extra depressed when journalists and ex-journalists — who are supposed to be professional skeptics — post stuff on Facebook that doesn’t smell right to me without checking Snopes.com (which, in at least a couple of such cases, debunked what was being posted).
It’s not just the kids who get duped. Mark, I agree, people need to be more cautious in what they post. Sometimes the information is harmless, a “good story.” Other times, it’s a link to spam and spreads harmful stories. I often check snopes.com. There are other sites that also debunk some of the stuff posted.
Great piece! It’s so frustrating when dealing with kids of any age who believe the unbelievable. Presumably they haven’t been taught the skills required to verify what’s factual and what’s fiction. What grieves me most is their lack of critical evaluation skills and the fact that their reading comprehension skills are so abysmal.
It was a real eye-opener for me. I agree, it is frustrating when you realize folks accept things at face value. This is true for kids and adults. They do need to keep an open mind on what they see and hear, weigh the evidence, and then make a decision on what is true or not. Thank you for your comments.
I love your blog and all your posts. I’ve nominated one of your posts for the BEST MOMENT AWARD. To receive the award, go to my blog for the rules to accept it. The logo to add to your site is available for download is at MomentMatters.com/Award. Congratulations! Marylin
Thank you for the nomination, Marilyn. I have been a big fan of your blog for some time, love reading about you and your mother. I do appreciate the recognition for the award. I just procrastinate about the follow thru.
Love it. I am about to be training seventh graders on research skills and look forward to the conversations we will have as we evaluate the authority of the resource. I definitely think it’s harder for kids who rely completely on the internet for their information, although we all know the grocery check out line is filled with plenty of false information in their magazines. Critical thinking skills are so vital for this generation and there is not enough of it being taught. Great job taking advantage of that teachable moment.
It gets worse, Danielle. When I ask them what site they got their info on, they say: Google or Yahoo. I tell them those are search engines, not web sites. They also want to use Wikipedia which is not a scholarly-accepted site for research – although it’s a great place to start and bounce off of. Good luck on your new responsibilities. They’ll be lucky to have you. Even if they’re grinding their teeth now, they’ll be thanking you much later. 😆
What is it they say? “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Too funny, Kate. I used to have an editor that said the same thing. (He was only joking.) 🙂
Great post Judy. I agree that critical evaluation skills to sift through the information overload on the net is vital. Should be a mandatory subject in schools if you ask me.
It certainly is a question of ‘who do you trust?’ especially when you don’t know the spin factor. Madhu, this is something we work on as critical evaluation skills are needed thru out life. Just think of how many adults are scammed because they don’t remember the maxim, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t (true).”
An eye opener my friend. People nowadays have a tendency to believe anything media feeds them. Look at some of YouTube viral hits. So many senseless, ridiculous stuff yet viewers feed on them like their pancakes. People even hurt themselves or worse others on purpose of a piece of money and publicity. Critical thinking needs to start at home as we teach our children the right and wrong. To use their common sense. To listen, to observe, to speak for themselves and yes, discern what real and not.
At the same time, many seem to have lost their empathy for what others are going thru. I base that on some of the comments I’ve seen that were left following some videos and news stories. Truly disheartening. What does give me hope is seeing young people – and adults – unexpectedly do wonderful and thoughtful things for others. If everyone does this, we’ll all benefit.
I’ve taught my kids to be skeptical. The problem is now they don’t believe anything I say.
Ain’t this the truth. (chuckle) You’ll know you really wised them up when they don’t bite on some too-good-to-be-true deal from some snake-oil salesman.
Judy, your essay should be read in every Middle School classroom that teachers English and Reading! And it would not hurt high school students to hear it! Recently, a former student of mine, found me on FB, He is now married and 30+ years old and dropped by to reprimand me on one of my political positions. In the process, he said “homeless people make $39,000. a year–more than I do as a military man!” and, of course, “everyone should support themselves,” etc.—— After I requested where he got his information from, he gave me this internet site. It was written rather poorly and I could see how he was misinformed–the site actually was saying. “if you are homeless, you have the potential to earn $39,000 if you sign ….” So, I think we should combine skepticism with critical reading for ALL students! and soon! Great article! Thank you for your many visits to my blog—much appreciated! Blessings on your day!
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jane. It was an eye-opening experience for me and them. Critical thinking and reading critically are a must to survive in college, our careers and in life.
I love your essays and poems (especially, “Rankle”). I can always count on you to write something creative, clever and informative.
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