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Education in the (Dis)Information Age

 Published on February 20, 2018 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Bonnie Stewart and Chris Friend and Jesse Stommel /  “Cause I'd Rather Pretend I'll Still Be There At The End” by Bethan Phillips on Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  10

We are all on the front lines in the war against disinformation.

I recently visited a seminar course for history majors at University of Mary Washington. In that course, students are digging into the differences between primary and secondary sources (a letter written by someone vs. a book written about them), learning the different means of evaluating each, and exploring ways to filter through the bias inherent in every source. I was there specifically to help them as they work through how to communicate their findings to a public, non-academic audience on the open web.

As we worked through some of the technical details, we also talked about the importance of what they were doing in that course in terms of the modern information landscape. After all, “fake news” has everyone talking about the reliability and bias of all kinds of information sources. Of all the things we could have talked about, though — Twitter bots, AI-generated video, memes, mainstream vs. partisan news media, Wikipedia, Wikileaks… — we spent most of our time on the hyperlink.

The hyperlink.

The oldest and simplest of internet technologies, the hyperlink and the “new” kind of text it affords — hypertext — is the foundational language of the internet, HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Hypertext connects all the disparate pieces of the web together. And it’s Sci-Fi name isn’t an accident. It’s hyperdrive for the internet, bending information space so that any user can travel galaxy-scale information distances with a small movement of a finger. The hyperlink still remains one of the most powerful elements of the web. In fact, I’d argue that the hyperlink is our most potent weapon in the fight against disinformation.

Now, I’m not talking about URLs, or “web addresses.” Yes, I can go anywhere on the internet if I know, and type, the right URL into the box at the top of my web browser. But a hyperlink is more than that. My site’s URL is pushpullfork.com, and colloquially many of us would call that the “link” to my site. But this is a hyperlink to my site — a tiny bit of colorful, underlined text that has the power to bend space and move information. That simple idea of text “marked up” with hyperlinks is the revolutionary idea of the internet. And it’s not just “marked up” as in highlighted, underlined, or even digitally annotated — it’s more than just what we’d write in the margins of our physical books. Clicking (or, most likely these days, tapping) on a link can take you to a whole other dimension of the internet. With one pull of the muscles in your finger, you can transform an artifact that looks very much like the artifacts we engaged in our pre-internet world of information poverty — a body of text that we can hold in our hands — into a portal to the world of information abundance.

But what does this have to do with history majors and evaluating information sources?

Think about what a digital historian (or musicologist or journalist or physicist or lawyer) can do with the hyperlink. Let’s take a primary source — an original document produced by people we are studying in the course of events we want to know more about — and see just what it can do.

Two paragraphs of black text on white background; the inaccessibility of this image contributes to the author’s point; the text is presented as part of the article below

This is an excerpt from the recently declassified and publicized memo about the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump U.S. presidential campaign and the Russian government. This memo is presented in its original form: a scanned image of a typed and printed paper document. (To be fair, the “original” memo was printed, and before that lived on someone’s computer. But the scanned image is the form it was in when first released to the public as a declassified document.) Here’s the text of that excerpt:

Investigation Update

On October 21, 2016, DOJ and FBI sought and received a FISA probable cause order (not under Title VII) authorizing electronic surveillance on Carter Page from the FISC. Page is a U.S. citizen who served as a volunteer advisor to the Trump presidential campaign. Consistent with requirements under FISA, the application had to be first certified by the Director or Deputy Director of the FBI. It then required the approval of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General (DAG), or the Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division.

The FBI and DOJ obtained one initial FISA warrant targeting Carter Page and three FISA renewals from the FISC. As required by statute (50 U.S.C. §1805(d)(1)), a FISA order on an American citizen must be renewed by the FISC every 90 days and each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause. Then-Director James Comey signed three FISA applications in question on behalf of the FBI, and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe signed one. Then-DAG Sally Yates, then-Acting DAG Dana Boente, and DAG Rod Rosenstein each signed one or more FISA applications on behalf of DOJ.

By selecting and retyping that excerpt, I’ve already done some significant things. First, I’ve honed in on a particular passage for a particular reason — in this case, one I can use to illustrate my point about hyperlinks. This choice leaves things out, though, and readers who engage it for different purposes may be (mis)led in certain directions because of what was included and what was left out. More digital-specific, I’ve made the text searchable and accessible — the original PDF from which I extracted that image had no embedded text, it was just a scan of a printed document. That means it was inaccessible to people with visual impairments, and was not able to be indexed by search engines. (No doubt there are searchable-text versions floating around by now, but for the sake of our discussion, it is important to note that most primary sources are simple images/scans like this one, which is, after all, the version linked by the New York Times.)

I’ve also added some structure, based on my interpretation. The heading “Investigation Update” was simply underlined in the original, but I know that is an older, typrewriter-based practice that denotes a section heading. So I replaced the underline with an HTML tag (<h3>) that gives it a place in the hierarchy that every web app understands and renders consistently — including screen readers and other text-to-speech apps. (I’ve similarly converted the typewriter-based underlined text to the italics that we’re more used to seeing in books and on the web. Some purists may balk at both of these changes, but based on my expertise in publishing and the web, I’m considering the typewriter and book/web versions equivalent, and “translating” the document from one domain into another.)

But let’s do something a little more more dynamic:

Investigation Update

On October 21, 2016, DOJ and FBI sought and received a FISA probable cause order (not under Title VII) authorizing electronic surveillance on Carter Page from the FISC. Page is a U.S. citizen who served as a volunteer advisor to the Trump presidential campaign. Consistent with requirements under FISA, the application had to be first certified by the Director or Deputy Director of the FBI. It then required the approval of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General (DAG), or the Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division.

The FBI and DOJ obtained one initial FISA warrant targeting Carter Page and three FISA renewals from the FISC. As required by statute (50 U.S.C. §1805(d)(1)), a FISA order on an American citizen must be renewed by the FISC every 90 days and each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause. Then-Director James Comey signed three FISA applications in question on behalf of the FBI, and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe signed one. Then-DAG Sally Yates, then-Acting DAG Dana Boente, and DAG Rod Rosenstein each signed one or more FISA applications on behalf of DOJ.

I’ve added links, obviously. But look more closely at what I’ve added. In the first paragraph, I’ve added links to Wikipedia — a generally reliable source with active checks against overt bias and disinformation, and with its own curated links to other sources. Likewise, the first link in the second paragraph is to the referenced legal code on an informational site hosted by Cornell University. By adding these links, I can provide context that provides balanced, in-depth information to help someone reading this memo for the first time to understand the background and make more informed, nuanced judgments about its content.

But look at the last two links. One is to FoxNews, and the other to FiveThirtyEight. The FoxNews link isn’t really about Andrew McCabe. But it does mention him in the context of a discussion of the top brass at Comey’s FBI … now leaving, and in McCabe’s case “stepping down amid questions about his handling of the Clinton email case,” according to Fox. The FiveThirtyEight piece is about the impact of the release of the Comey letter, and its negative impact on Clinton’s campaign.

While both of these articles present facts, there are clear biases presented as well. Fox’s article attempts to discredit McCabe, where the presence of a link to FiveThirtyEight can betray, or invoke, pro-Clinton and anti-Trump-administration emotions. By linking to either, I can trigger memories and emotions that exert some influence over the reader’s interpretation of what follows in the memo.

And that’s where the history major (or, really, any individual whose mind is tuned to think critically about sources in context) comes in. With experience in evaluating and distinguishing various kinds of sources, the critically minded student can parse these links and filter bias to pull nuanced meaning from these various texts. More importantly in our current information landscape, the student/professor/researcher-as-public-scholar/educated-graduate-as-mindful-citizen can curate the best primary and secondary sources as links, and use the opportunity not simply to prove their credentials and bolster their argument, but to educate the public, bringing more light than heat to whatever issue they are unpacking.

Think about it this way. If I’m the first person to take a primary source, transcribe (or translate) it, and annotate it with hyperlinks, and my public, digital writing gains traction, it will fast become the go-to source at the top of the search results. My hyperlinks and commentary will become the portal to the resources that people engage to gain context, background, and nuance. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity, to connect my skills as an academic and a humanist to the issues of the day, in an attempt to bring nuance and truth to the public consciousness.

On the flip side, if no one does this, or if they wait too long, the clickbait and conspiracy theories will win out.

Now, some might think that all of this would go without saying. This is the twenty-first century, digital natives, and all that. But there are two huge barriers to this kind of action being the default for educated users of the web.

First, academic work — both for students and faculty — still tends to be centered around traditional, pre-web conventions of writing. The printed book/article/essay, with footnotes and a bibliography, does not speak the language of the web, and footnotes/endnotes on a website do not encourage an audience to engage with more material more deeply. Putting an academic paper on the web is nothing like writing for the web. Until more faculty help their students learn to do the latter (and until faculty promotion and retention policies encourage faculty themselves to be fluent in writing for a public audience on the web), we’ll continue to raise up future generations of graduates (including the next generation of professors) who aren’t ready for their role in the fight against disinformation.

Second, social-media platforms have worked hard to kill the hyperlink. Sure, there are plenty of links to click on, but they aren’t generated by users. Remember the difference between a link and a URL. I can paste a URL into a tweet or a Facebook post and it becomes clickable, but I cannot write in hypertext. I cannot annotate and link my writing with that of others. And including multiple URLs confuses the platforms! (It would be ironic that platforms whose financial well being is determined by clicks would have this problem — if we didn’t know better.) Social media are designed to share text, images, video, and articles, but not to write in hypertext — the language of the web. After all, if I actually click on all those links, I leave the platform… and take my ad-revenue-generating clicks with me. And so I notice more and more that while the students and faculty I work with know what it means to read the language of the web (including clicking on links), they have been conditioned against writing the language of the web (including inserting properly functioning links into their text). It takes a conscious effort to resist this conditioning — conditioning which, in many ways, feels very similar to and is reinforced by traditional, hyperlink-less academic writing.

The internet was created by and for universities and government researchers. It’s not surprising that when researchers first started networking together digitally, they created a language based around a digital form of citation — hypertext. It’s also not surprising that as the internet has become commercialized, the language of open information discovery and sharing has been supplanted by platforms that limit the forms our discourse may take, in order to serve their own profit-driven agendas. As propagandists and perpetrators of (dis)information operations find those social-media limitations amenable to their aims, we need to resist. And we resist not only with better information, and better interpretation, but in recovering the language of the internet — the language of (digital) scholarship.

It’s time we brought back the hyperlink and learned how to really use it. It’s time we used information abundance to our advantage. And it’s time we disentangled our communications from platforms tuned for the spread of disinformation. The health of our democracies just might depend on it.

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10 Responses
  1. This is so great; I find it uphill often with my students new to web writing to put link making into their writing, if at a minimum to help the reader understand context, that it’s what makes the web a web. It surprises me because they encounter links often in web reading, but many do not naturally think to put it in their writing.

    I dig the emphasis between the “link” and the “hyperlink”.

    But here you are making a bigger case, that the hyperlinks indicate more than just more information, and that factors into both the reading and the writing. There is also consideration of the durability of the link; if we care about the writing, do we consider if the sites we link to will have a shelf life?

    One small thing; you describe the use of markup to add italics, which is what most think of as the em tag — but semantically it indicates emphasis; and strong is not really just for bold font face, but even stronger emphasis.

    I’d not even considered the idea that social media suppresses the hyperlink in favor of the link (and even worse, Instagram will not even turn a naked URL into a hyperlink, isn’t that a clear statement of their intent to keep you inside?). And furthermore, blog comments allow you the ability to hyperlink like there was no yesterday only if you know some raw HTML.

    Thanks for some deep thoughts on the hyperlinks, the best thing ever about this space.

  2. Alan, re: “It surprises me because they encounter links often in web reading, but many do not naturally think to put it in their writing.” – it may be because many students don’t actually click on the links they encounter in their web reading (argued here https://hapgood.us/2016/12/19/yes-digital-literacy-but-which-one/ and elsewhere). It makes one wonder, why not? The knee-jerk answer is laziness, but what if it’s something else, along the lines the value that students see in links to begin with. It would be interesting to dig into that a bit.

    1. Kris’ point about writing for the web is spot on, but we also need to hone our reading for the web, and I think this gets at your point, Sarah. We’re conditioned to read material straight through – books and other print materials don’t have sidebars or jumps in the flow of the piece. (I even tend to skip footnotes until after I’ve finished a chapter.)

      Reading on the web, with embedded hyperlinks, forces the user to partition their thought processes. Opening a link in a new tab to read later, or in the moment, is a new skill, and one that needs to be developed. Teaching and encouraging our students (colleagues, parents, friends…) to explore and be led to important contextual information becomes an important compliment to teaching writing for the web.

  3. Rebecca Halpern

    On a completely selfish question: have you engaged with or collaborated with librarians to help teach? I only ask because – as a librarian myself – we have both a lot to contribute and to learn about discussions of misinformation, credibility, bias, and attribution.

  4. So much good stuff here, Kris. The difference in writing on the web vs. writing of the web is so critical, and yet I struggle to persuade faculty and students of why it’s so important. I’ve used the text Web Writing. Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, edited by Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell, with faculty, though often it’s those already convinced who are open to these ideas.

    I wonder if part of the reason that the hyperlink has been deprecated for some is the growing percentage of web content that is video. The NYT had that piece a week or so ago, “ Welcome to the Post-Text Future,” alluding to just this fact. I hope we’re not entering such a future, but some may choose to see the web increasingly in visual and not textual terms. Of course, one of the affordances of the web is multi-modal composition, and the incorporation of visual and other elements into textual artifacts.

    Your section on social media platforms killing the hyperlink is particularly helpful in clarifying that distinction between pasting a URL and creating a hyperlink. It’s a lot more consequential than perhaps I had previously considered. I mean, clicking on the URL does take you out of the platform, so they aren’t stopping that, but it certainly does obscure the fuller nature of hypertextuality.

    The comparison of the FOX News and 538.com pieces is instructive also if we compare them as examples of the web writing we’re talking about here. Nate Silver’s piece is itself studded with hyperlinks as well as embedded images and graphs, while in the much shorter Fox item…zero hyperlinks. For what it’s worth (and it’s arguable), but I think Silver (and I) would dispute your claim that “the presence of a link to FiveThirtyEight can betray, or invoke, pro-Clinton and anti-Trump-administration emotions.” Maybe for some it does, but I wouldn’t set up 538 as the Fox of the left. And the fact that 538 is so generous with outgoing links just might be evidence that they strive to be more analytical and non-partisan in their reporting.

  5. My primary form of long form writing is to use hypermedia. Any of my articles and posts (even the short ones) are filled with references to (what I think are) original sources, useful background, supporting opinions, etc. Sometimes they’re to academic papers, but with few exceptions, academic papers aren’t primary sources (except with respect to the very specific experimental result they are describing).

    So I am included to agree with Shaffer with respect to the utility and importance of the hyperlink. The example provided (though rooted in a very specific moment in U.S. politics) is a good one. But I’m not completely convinced by the arguments concerning the urgency of this. In particular:

    – He writes, “if no one does this (hyperlinks and comments), or if they wait too long, the clickbait and conspiracy theories will win out.” This is based on the assertion that “hyperlinks and commentary will become the portal to the resources that people engage to gain context, background, and nuance. ” I don’t agree that they would become *the* portal. I think there are many other choices, including reading the document in its original non-hyperlinked form (as most people will probably do).

    – He writes, “social-media platforms have worked hard to kill the hyperlink… I can paste a URL into a tweet or a Facebook post and it becomes clickable, but I cannot write in hypertext. I cannot annotate and link my writing with that of others.” No doubt social media platforms want to control the conversation, ensuring that people (to the greatest degree possible) stay engaged with the platform. But the difference between my writing an opinion right beside the hyperlink and writing it within the hyperlink is wildly exaggerated.

    The better advice, I think, that follows from this argument is the one I have ultimately adopted: Don’t use academic journals and don’t use Facebook. I publish my work in my own way on my own site, so I can control how he message is expressed. Hyperlinks are a part of that.

    But the other part of the argument, which I’ll characterize as “insert bias in to primary sources before the other side can” is something I reject. If I link, it will be to the PDF, with a hypertext version treated (as it should be) as commentary.

    1. I wonder if inline shared annotations could become a viable forms of hyperlink.

      Annotations were part of the original idea of the internet, but a combination of public, privat and group annotation of online text has only recently become possible using Hypothesis.

      A few readers of Hybrid Pedagogy are already using Hypothesis for public inline comments (two of them on this very article, while others might be annotating on user-created private groups).

      Maybe we could experiment with an annotation group for readers of Hybrid Pedagogy – both for articles of this journal and other ones that we wish to discuss. Or maybe we can simply make public comments.

      Shared annotation could be a way of “bringing back the hyperlink”, as Kris Shaffer suggests.

  6. Angela

    For lots of complex reasons, not every writer writing today has a free choice of platform or even format. Even though some platforms allow us to write in freely in hypertext, I’m wondering if some of the interfaces we encounter have also influenced the way we use hypertext and hyperlinks? Does the chain-link icon in wysiwyg editors used for online and offline writing, influence the writer to think about the act of linking in a particular way? Do tool tips like ‘insert link’ channel our thinking? I started my HTML adventures in Notepad in the late 1990s. Does my awareness of the earliest bones beneath HTML mean that I am more or likely to think about hypertext than someone starting to writing for the web through wysiwig? Or is it the opposite somehow? Do wysiwyg editors lead us into hypertext? Thanks for stirring some thoughts about writing on the web for me.

  7. Thunderous applause, Kris, for this call to use the hyperlink in its full power!

    Agreed about some social media platforms doing their best to slide URLs away. I’ve been experimenting with linked and unlinked Facebook posts; so far, that platform seeks to hide my linked posts. (One trick: create a post w/o a link, then add the link in a comment)

    I would add that mobile devices have also driven the anti-linking spirit. Many, many apps are designed to keep users away from clicking to the web.

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