Skip to content ↓

Distinguishing truth in communications

With a new National Science Foundation grant, Justin Reich and collaborators will apply information literacy research to communities outside the formal education system.
Press Inquiries

Press Contact:

Andrew Whitacre
Phone: 617-324-0490
MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and MIT RAISE Initiative
Photo of three young people looking at a laptop
Strong evidence demonstrates that students can be taught to search effectively online.
Photo courtesy of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab

The National Science Foundation has awarded $750,000 to a team of researchers led by MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing Associate Professor Justin Reich to test methods of improving information literacy among populations usually overlooked in such work.

Reich and his collaborators are concerned about citizens’ skills in distinguishing truth from distortions or untruths in informing their decisions. Their NSF-funded project will take the lessons learned about teaching information literacy in the K-12 context and explore how to transfer and adapt them to communities outside the formal education system. The first phase of their work with a diverse array of partners will develop and test interventions with populations usually not reached by information literacy education, including rural and low-income Americans without broadband access, older adults, and indigenous communities.

The NSF announced 28 groups as awardees for over $21 million in Convergence Accelerator grants, with Reich’s team being one of a dozen in the program’s “Trust and Authenticity in Communications” track. Reich’s co-principal investigators include Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg, who studies how people judge the credibility of online content; University of North Carolina Assistant Professor Francesca Tripodi, whose research focuses on the sociological complexities of media literacy and how information systems are exploited for political gain; and Michael Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver, where he directs blended and networked learning.

“NSF's Convergence Accelerator is their moonshot program to tackle the toughest, most urgent problems in American life.” Reich says. “Addressing misinformation is one of them.”

Though the team will focus on populations outside the education system, Reich highlights Wineburg’s previous findings within that system. “Everyone that Prof. Wineburg has ever studied really struggles at evaluating online information — kids, college freshman, tenured history professors. Everyone except fact checkers, who are very fast and effective, not because they are smarter than others or have better critical reasoning skills but because they use a different process.” It’s these processes that lessons from K-12 teaching are starting to improve, but those lessons have barely extended beyond that setting.

Francesca Tripodi’s research will also help the team understand communities’ unique media literacy practices — where they go for information, how they come to trust that information, and how their orientation to search inputs influences outputs. “This is crucial to the success of training and intervention delivery,” says Tripodi, from the School of Information and Library Science and the Center for Information Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As she noted in a recent interview with Project Information Literacy, “Few of us understand that our search results are so closely tied to our keywords and that those starting points are coded with bias before we even begin our search.”  

The group’s work will be broken into two phases. First is an ideation process with all stakeholders, a step integral to the long-term success of projects within the Convergence Accelerator. In line with NSF's human-centered design framework, the team will work closely with partners to adapt K-12 misinformation interventions — moving from public education to educating the public — and then scaling to other groups, including military families and veterans.

A partner in this phase will be Humanities Montana, an established advocate for engaged citizenship that works primarily with libraries and cultural institutions. Tripodi will lead this effort to conduct ethnographic research with the partner communities in Montana. This work will both test the ability for existing interventions to transfer to other communities while also taking an exploratory approach to studying the media and algorithmic literacy practices and needs of rural communities in the United States.

The second phase will be the targeted interventions with groups too often vulnerable to misinformation — Black Americans, Native Americans, and the military. Their work is slated to be completed next fall.

“The Stanford History Education Group and Michael Caulfield and his collaborators have developed a series of instructional approaches that are proven to help secondary school students and college students improve their fluency with online search,” Reich says. “We need to make those approaches familiar and available to many more people, not just in schools, but in libraries, health-care settings, and anywhere people are trying to find accurate information online. Teaching people how to search and evaluate information effectively is one of the grand challenges of the decades ahead.”

Tripodi adds that “if people consume information without the ability to assess its credibility — unable to tell who is behind a cause and what their motives might be — they are easy prey for groups that seek to deceive, mislead, and manipulate.”

Related Links

Related Topics

Related Articles

More MIT News