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Virginia Journal of Education


Separating Fact and Fiction in the Internet Age

by Karen Work Richardson
Last month, Glen Bull described new ways of Web publishing that allow the “always connected” student to make and share immediate changes to documents housed on shared spaces. He also suggested that there were ramifications to this kind of instant access. I agree, and this month, I want to explore what I believe is one of the biggest ramifications in terms of our role as educators in both learning ourselves and helping our students learn how to navigate a world where accessing information is easy, but analyzing it is essential.

Here’s an example of what I’m thinking about: Just recently, I received an e-mail from my husband’s aunt. It was a forwarded e-mail of a political nature designed to impugn the President. She included a short note that said, “This is scary!” What was scary was that the entire e-mail contained false information, designed to inflame people who already harbored certain fears.

How do I know the e-mail was false? After reading through if, filled as it was with bold red statements and lots of exclamation points, I did what I always do: I went to Snopes. David and Barbara Mikkelson, the masterminds behind, have made it their business to investigate the seemingly endless variety of messages circulating on the Internet, from rumors about the ingredients in Coca-Cola to warnings about the dangers of disposable chopsticks. It’s an entertaining spot to spend some time, looking to see how small kernels of truth turn into urban legends and e-mail forwards. But it’s also a reminder that the Internet doesn’t come with a fact checker, the kind employed by professional journalists. You are your own fact checker, and while the people at Snopes can be helpful, they don’t know it all.

But what about those professional journalists and their fact checkers? Even they are not immune to the lures of Internet rumors. Earlier this year, a grainy bit of cell phone video with poor audio showed up on a conservative website. It featured Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was an excerpt of remarks she made at an NAACP meeting earlier in the year. In this short clip--just a two-and-a-half minutes of a 43-minute speech--Sherrod’s remarks about her work with a white farmer seem to hint at some racist elements. Within hours of the appearance of the video clip, Sherrod was being pressured by her colleagues and the White House to resign, something she did later that day. It took another day for the whole video to appear, and it quickly became apparent that someone, or really everyone, hadn’t done the necessary homework that would allow them to make a qualified decision on this case. The complete video told a much different story, and in just 24 hours, the very people who had been quick to condemn Sherrod were now apologizing and offering her a new, better position.

What was the lesson here?  Perhaps Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, expressed it best in an interview just a few days after the incident, saying, "I've learned a lot of lessons from this experience the last couple of days, and one of these things I've learned is that these kinds of decisions take time.” Yet, time is the very thing we don’t feel as though we have when our computers and phones are brimming with e-mails and text messages, all demanding attention. We feel presssure to respond quickly rather than taking the time to read, investigate and analyze. Or, as my husband says, at least breathe and count to 10.

This is the world in which our students will be living and working for the rest of their lives, a world in which telecommunications innovations have the power to bring people together in ways never imagined by those who have gone before. But with great power comes great responsibility, and I believe educators across the spectrum have a role to play in helping young people develop that sense of responsibility.

In terms of the Sherrod case, the most important quality of a responsible cybercitizen is a healthy sense of skepticism about everything you see, read and hear. As a kid, I watched anchorman Walter Cronkite and when he ended the newscast by saying “that’s the way it is,” we believed him. At this point, I’m not sure there is anyone I can believe with that much confidence, and I’m reminded of the old saying, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.” Children, young people and adults alike must learn to trust and verify as we become our own fact checkers in this brave new world.

Richardson holds a PhD in Curriculum and Educational Technology from the College of William and Mary. She teaches educational technology and research courses at William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition, she is the executive director of the Virginia Society for Technology in Education.



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