Q: Why do we use Wikipedia for lateral reading? Since when has Wikipedia become a reliable source?


I love your skepticism! I also like that you’re thinking critically about what we’re teaching you and asking us to explain things that don’t sound right. As you’ve figured out by now, a big part of this course is learning how to evaluate the credibility of all the media masquerading as news on the Internet. There is a veritable deluge of misinformation and disinformation finding its way to our devices, and generic research skills are simply inadequate when sources deliberately disguise their identities and intentions.

Case in point: Two Stanford researchers, Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew conducted an experiment asking 45 people to evaluate the credibility of real websites on social and political issues. The group pitted 25 Stanford students and 10 Ph.D. historians against 10 professional fact-checkers. While the historians and students read “vertically” and stayed within the websites to determine their credibility, fact-checkers read “laterally,” quickly leaving the original sites and opening new tabs to investigate the credibility of the websites or authors and their sources. 

The fact-checkers won hands done and accurately determined which websites were trustworthy in a fraction of the time, in many cases in 60 or 90 seconds. These professional fact-checkers knew that spending even a few minutes on a website’s content was a waste of time if the site was not a trustworthy source. Meanwhile, the students and historians took up to 10 minutes per website and were wrong in their assessment more than half the time. Students, in particular, were swayed by appearances. Websites with high production values and slick “About” pages with scientific-sounding information increased their “sense of security.” Fact-checkers did not fall for appearances and knew not to evaluate a site based on the description it writes about itself.

Wineburg and McGrew studied the fact-checkers and their assessment practices and coined the phrase “lateral reading” to describe their method. They view lateral reading as a must-have 21st-century skill to navigate our information ecosystem. 

Mike Caulfield, the author of the open textbook,  Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and the star of the lateral reading videos you watched, agrees. He says the first question a person should ask when landing on an unfamiliar source is: “Is this source what I think it is, or something different?” To determine this quickly and efficiently, he invented the “Wikipedia trick.” Basically, you strip the source’s URL of everything but its domain name and add a space followed by Wikipedia.  This gets you to the source’s Wikipedia page and, hopefully, information that will help you judge its credibility. For example, to learn more about the website minimumwage.com, this is what the search bar would look like:

Caufield is the first to admit that checking out a source on Wikipedia is just one step in the fact-checking process. In his textbook, he calls his method, Four Moves, and a Habit.

The moves, outlined in this NPR story, are:

  1. Go upstream to the source: Most Web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. Is it a reputable scientific journal? Is there an original news media account from a well-known outlet? If that is not immediately apparent, then move to step 2.
  2. Read laterally: Once you get to the source of a claim, read what Wikipedia or other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  3. Check for previous work: Look around to see whether someone else has already fact-checked this claim or source and provided a synthesis of the research. Some places to look: WikipediaSnopesPolitifact  and NPR’s Fact Check website.
  4. Circle back: If you get lost or hit dead ends or find yourself going down a rabbit hole, back up and start over.

Caufield’s habit that is the companion to those four moves is keeping your emotions in check. “When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP,” says Caufield, adding that anything that appeals directly to our “lizard brain is designed to short circuit our critical thinking.”

As for your skepticism about Wikipedia, it is still well-founded. On Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia page, it states, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source,” explaining that anyone can edit it at any time. In addition, errors can remain in an entry indefinitely if no one notices. 

In fact,  a recent study by Lucy Holman Rector revealed significant inaccuracies in two out of nine Wikipedia entries reviewed and determined that Wikipedia’s accuracy rate is 80 percent compared with 95-96 percent accuracy for other sources.

That said, Wikipedia is also the Internet’s largest general reference work with 40 million articles in 301 languages, according to this delightful video by John Green on how to use Wikipedia wisely for lateral reading. For our purposes, Wikipedia is an excellent tool to quickly check out an unfamiliar source and a stepping stone to more resources through its citations at the bottom of the page. It is the first stop and should not be your only source or reference.

And if you’re skeptical about something you read on Wikipedia, no problem. All you have to do is open another tab and keep reading laterally.