June 13, 2024

Control-F and Building Resilient Information Networks

Author: mikecaulfield
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In the misinformation field there’s often a weird dynamic between the short-term and long-term gains folks. Maybe I don’t go to the right meetings, but my guess is if you went to a conference on structural racism and talked about a redesigning the mortgage interest deduction in a way that was built to specifically build black wealth rather than intensify racial wealth gaps most of the folks there would be fine with yes-anding it. Let’s get that done short term, and other stuff long-term. Put it on the road map.

In misinformation, however, the short term and long term people are perpetually at war. It’s as if you went to the structural racism conference and presented on revised mortgage policy and someone asked you how that freed children from cages on the border. And when you said it didn’t, they threw up their hands and said, “See?”

Control-F as an Example of a Targeted Approach

Here’s an example: control-f. In my classes, I teach our students to use control-f to find stuff on web pages. And I beg other teachers to teach control-f as well. Some folks look at that and say, that’s ridiculous. Mike, you’re not going to de-radicalize Nazis by teaching them control-f. It’s not going to address cognitive bias. It doesn’t give them deep critical thinking powers, or undo the resentment that fuels disinformation’s spread.

But consider the tactics used by propagandists, conspiracy theorists, bad actors, and the garden variety misinformed. Here’s a guy yesterday implying that the current coronavirus outbreak is potentially a bioweapon, developed with the help of Chinese spies (That’s how I read the implication at least).

Screenshotted tweet links to CBC article and claims it describes a husband and wife were Chinese “spies” removed from a facility for sending pathogens back to China.

Now is that true? It’s linked to the CBC, after all. That’s a reputable outlet.

The first thing you have to do to verify it is click the link. And right there, most students don’t know they should do that. They really don’t. It’s where most students fail, actually, their lack of link-clicking. But the second thing you have to do is see whether the article actually supports that summary.

How do you do that? Well, you could advise people to fully read the article, in which case zero people are going to do that because it takes too long to do for every tweet or email or post. And if it takes too long, the most careless people in the network will tweet unverified claims (because they are comfortable with not verifying) and the most careful people will tweet nothing (because they don’t have time to verify to their level of certainty). And if you multiply that out over a few hundred million nodes you get the web as we have it today, victim of the Yeats Effect (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”). The reckless post left and right and the careful barely post at all.

The Yeats Effect Is Partially a Product of Time Disparities

One reason the best lack conviction, though, is time. They don’t have the time to get to the level of conviction they need, and it’s a knotty problem, because that level of care is precisely what makes their participation in the network beneficial. (In fact, when I ask people who have unintentionally spread misinformation why they did so, the most common answer I hear is that they were either pressed for time, or had a scarcity of attention to give to that moment).

But what if — and hear me out here — what if there was a way for people to quickly check whether linked articles actually supported the points they claimed to? Actually quoted things correctly? Actually provided the context of the original from which they quoted?

And what if, by some miracle, that function was shipped with every laptop and tablet, and available in different versions for mobile devices?

This super-feature actually exists already, and it’s called control-f. Roll the animated GIF!

In the GIF above we show a person checking whether key terms in the tweet about the virus researchers are found in the article. Here we check “spy”, but we can quickly follow up with other terms: coronavirus, threat, steal, send.

I just did this for the tweeted article, and repeatedly those terms are found either not at all or in links to other unrelated stories. Except for threat, which turned up this paragraph that says the opposite of what the tweet alleges:

Paragraph indicating no threat to public perceived. Which would be odd if they were shipping deadly viruses around.

The idea here is not that if those specific words are not found that the contextualization is wrong. But rather than reading every article cited to determine whether it has been correctly contextualized, a person can quickly identify cases which have a high probability of being miscontextualized and are therefore worth the effort to correct. And for every case like this, where it’s reckless summary, there’s maybe ten other cases where the first term helps the user verify it’s good to share. Again, in less than a few seconds.

But People Know This, Right?

Now, here’s the kicker. You might think that since this form of verification triage is so easy that we’d be in a better situation. One theory is that people know about control-f, but they just don’t care. They like their disinfo, they can’t be bothered. (I know there’s a mobile issue too, but that’s another post). If everybody knows this and doesn’t do it, isn’t that just more evidence that we are not looking at a skills issue?

Except, if you were going to make that argument, you’d have to show that everybody actually does know about control-f. It wouldn’t be the end of the argument — I could reply that knowing and having a habit are different — but that’s where we’d start.

So think for a minute. How many people know that you can use control-f and other functions to search a page? What percentage of internet users? How close to a 100% is it? What do we have to work with —

Eh, I can’t drag out the suspense any longer. This is an older finding, internal to Google: only 10% of internet users know how to use control-F.

I have looked for more recent studies and I can’t find them. But I know in my classes many-to-most students have never heard of control-f, and another portion is aware it can be used in things like Microsoft Word, but unaware it’s a cross-application feature available on the web. When I look over student shoulders as they execute web search tasks, I repeatedly find them reading every word of a document to answer a specific question about the document. In a class of 25 or so there’s maybe one student that uses control-f naturally coming into the class.

Can We Do This Already Please

If we assume that people have a limited amount of effort they’ll expend on verification, the lack of knowledge here may be as big a barrier as other cognitive biases. Why we aren’t vigorously addressing issues like this in order to build a more resilient information network (and even to just help students efficiently do things like study!) is something I continue to not understand. Yes, we have big issues. But can we take five minutes and show people how to search?

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