Lateral Reading

A human silhouette bathed in a warm glow stand amidst an interconnected network of spheres

By observing fact checkers, we found that the best way to learn about a website is lateral reading—leaving a site to see what other digital sources say about it.

Teaching Lateral Reading | Civic Online Reasoning

lateral reading, a strategy for investigating a website or post by going outside the site itself.

Evaluating where information comes from is an important part of deciding whether it is trustworthy. The best way to learn about who is behind a website or post is to read laterally—to go outside the site to see what other sites say about it.

Intro to Lateral Reading | Civic Online Reasoning
Sort Fact from Fiction Online with Lateral Reading

When you come across information online, ask yourself:

  1. Who’s behind the information?
  2. What’s the evidence?
  3. What do other sources say?
COR: Civic Online Reasoning
Check Yourself with Lateral Reading: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information #3

When you’re on a new website, instead of staying put and taking their word for it, you should just… leave.

Open a new tab and start looking for more information.

That’s called lateral reading.

It’s lateral because, instead of moving up and down, you’re moving from tab to tab.

Basically, what I’m saying is that when your browser looks like this, it can actually be good news.

Check Yourself with Lateral Reading: Crash Course Navigating Digital Information #3 – YouTube

When we read laterally, we leave an unfamiliar website and open new browser tabs to see what other websites say about the original site. Once we know more about an organization, we can make an initial judgment about how trustworthy it is for the topic at hand. We can then choose whether or not to return to actually read the information it has provided.

The success of lateral reading depends on whether we find trustworthy sources that shed light on the organization/person we’re investigating. What kinds of sources should we use when we read laterally? There are a range of possibilities, and we need to learn to be flexible in using them to ensure that we learn as much as we can when we read laterally about a website.

Lateral Reading Resources & Practice | Civic Online Reasoning

Two minutes into our first interview, it became clear that fact-checkers approached digital content differently from historians. Whereas most of these academics read the Web vertically, their eyes moving up and down the screen as though it were a page of print, fact checkers read laterally, leaping from an unfamiliar site almost immediately and opening up multiple search windows. This horizontal scan of other sites gave them a near-instantaneous fix on where they had originally landed.

Why learn history (when it’s already on your phone)

Lateral reading is a way of taking bearings, a concept familiar to experienced hikers.27 Traversing a thick forest, they know they can easily lose their way if a dense fog sets in. Spying a distant peak, hikers direct their compasses toward it and rotate the bezel to determine their “bearing”—that is, the angle, measured in degrees, between true north and their destination. Even when visibility diminishes, hikers know that if they continue to walk at, say, thirty degrees north, they’ll be headed toward their destination. Taking bearings doesn’t guarantee the hikers will get there—human error is always a factor—but it gives them a sense of direction, alerting them to what to look for and what to ignore.

Why learn history (when it’s already on your phone)

Fact-checkers’ lateral reading was not only more efficient, but more accurate than the methods used by historians. It allowed them to ignore massive amounts of information that derailed other searchers. By opening multiple windows and scanning their contents, checkers had a better sense of what they were dealing with. Their searches were both more frugal and more accurate.31 “Faced with uncertainty, sometimes [people] need to ignore information to make good decisions,” noted psychologists who study decision-making at Germany’s Max Planck Institutes.32 Compared to the historians, these fact-checkers read less but learned more—often in a fraction of the time.

Why learn history (when it’s already on your phone)

Here’s an example of [a web-specific] skill. I’ve watched smart people who don’t know how to right-click. And so if you don’t know how to right-click, to open up tabs across the horizontal access of your screen, you’re just laying window on window. And then it becomes so clumsy to look at your screen where there are 11 windows lying on top of each other! It reminds me of the aphorism, “For want of a nail…” If you don’t know how to do something like right-click, you’re going to have a hard time doing lateral reading.

Fact-checkers know that in a digital medium, the web is a web. It’s not just a metaphor. You understand a particular node by its relationship in a web. So the smartest thing to do is to consult the web to understand any particular node. That is very different from reading Thucydides, where you look at internal criticism and consistency because there really isn’t a documentary record beyond Thucydides.

Sam Wineburg, Stanford history professor, on the problems with how schools teach history today.

Related reading,

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they