Young people’s ability to evaluate the information they find online is ‘bleak’. This was the troubling conclusion reached in the well-known 2016 Stanford History Education Group’s research on Evaluating Information: the cornerstone of civic online research.

Three years later results from their new research study Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: a national portrait have been received and unfortunately, the outlook isn’t any brighter.

Between June 2018 and May 2019, the group assessed a sample of 3,446 students across the United States. The assessment comprising six exercises – focused around video evidence, webpage comparison, article evaluation, claims on social media and homepage analysis – aimed to gauge ‘students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet’.

The results are ‘troubling’, with a staggering 90% of students receiving no credit on four of the six exercises!

For example, when shown a silent video posted on Facebook by an account called ‘I on Flicks’ which showed clips of poll workers binning ballots, 52% of students believed that it provided strong evidence of voter fraud in US Democratic primary elections. The video was actually from a Russian election.

And when presented with the homepage of a climate change website funded by fossil fuel companies 96% of students believed the site to be reliable because of certain features of the website itself – ‘its top-level domain (.org), the recency of its updates, the presence or absence of ads, the quantity of information’. They accepted the website at face value, and most didn’t use lateral reading to evaluate the trustworthiness of the source. An approach described in the report as “a dangerous way to make judgements online”.

These are worrying examples. The fact young people simply believe without question, or thought for the source and information they encounter online goes to show the great deal of work that still needs to be done if they are to become effective digital citizens.

Students’ ability to use devices such as mobile phones, or tablets does not mean they are digitally literate. They need to be able to critically evaluate the information and sources they are faced with online. They need digital literacy skills!

As Rosie Jones, Director of Student and Library Services at Teesside University, discussed in her talk ‘Building Digital Capability: making the most of digital opportunities’ at the JCS 2019 Conference – digital literacy cannot simply be a tick box exercise. Students need to go beyond simply checking content features within a website or social media post. They must be taught the concept of lateral reading within the context of the curriculum.

The key to achieving this lies with our librarians. Being information professionals, librarians teach digital literacy and critical thinking skills through collaboration with teachers and the curation of trusted sources. Librarians are far more than just “book dispensers”, they are the solution to the digital literacy problems facing society.

The research concludes that ‘If we don’t act with urgency, our students’ ability to engage in civic life will be the casualty.’  We need to look to librarians and their power to develop young people’s digital literacy skills and to create critical thinkers as the key to preventing this.

Take a look at the presentations from the JCS 2019 Conference, Digital Literacy in Schools: building capabilities to see examples of other librarian’s digital literacy interventions and ideas.


Evaluating Information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning (November, 2016)

Students’ Civic Online Reasoning: A National Portrait (November, 2019)