SIFTing Through the Outbreak

There’s a lot of bad information out there about the recent coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, just tuning out is not an option. Pandemics are serious business.

In a previous time, we would have just followed along with the pandemic on the nightly news. When Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel said hey, don’t panic we wouldn’t panic. And when Walter or Ted said panic we’d panic.

For many people today, that’s not enough. People want to track such issues more closely, engage with expert commentary, inform their neighbors. And there’s lots of good things about that. Engagement can be good. An engaged and informed public can even help mitigate the effects of a pandemic through civic action. And when influential people get engaged in this way, they can mobilize millions.

But there’s a downside too. When the people who are the most engaged and influential don’t have basic verification skills, unsubstantiated rumors can quickly spread. Sometimes those rumors have direct, harmful consequences. But even when they don’t, the constant firehose of falsehood slowly convinces not only those engaged but their neighbors, friends, family, fans, and followers that no one really knows anything, that nothing can be trusted. When trustworthy information is finally available, it’s ignored, or swallowed in the flood of daily conspiracy theory. When it really is time to act — when the population is truly in danger — we often see a boy who cried wolf effect. The public will tell you, even as a crisis mounts, that they’ve heard that all before, that it never turns out to be true.

And when that happens — well, people die.

What can do do about this? How can we take advantage of the new levels of engagement of the public with these issues while making sure that engagement is not manipulated by bad actors, or misinformed by error?

For over a decade I’ve been fascinated by this question. And for the past four years I’ve worked relentlessly on one small piece of this issue. What I’ve been trying to answer is this — what is the smallest set of skills we can give people that prepares them to actively engage as citizens on the web?

And you heard me right, there — I said smallest. There’s a place developing deep statistical knowledge that lets you comb through raw data. There’s a place for critical thinking, formal logic, semester long courses on the history of journalism and communication theory. But when we examine the errors people make on the web they often are not a function of statistical literacy or even critical thinking. People fail at the web largely because they don’t know or practice simple habits of verification and context-building. Stuff that takes not 30 minutes, but 30 seconds to do.

Working with students and faculty over the past four years I have refined an approach to getting better at the web that most people can learn and mostly master in under four hours. A set of what I call tricks, though everyone has advised me not to call them that. But I call them tricks because when you learn them they’ll feel a little like magic.

We organize the tricks into a model we call SIFT, and I’ll introduce you to that model in the next video. But I’m begging you, if you’re going to be engaged with this issue (or you know someone who is) take four hours of your time and go through this course. And if you are a media star or political leader with hundreds of thousands of followers, it’s even more important for you to know this stuff, the secret knowledge of the web.

Stick with this course — it’ll take an afternoon at most. And though it sounds really cheesy to say, it’s true: people’s lives may depend on it.

Ready? Let’s Start!