The recent presidential election made one thing quite clear. Americans from all across the political spectrum struggle to separate reliable information and informed opinion from made-up facts and intentionally misleading perspectives.
Even so, it comes as a mild surprise to learn that even so-called digital natives – young people entirely at ease in the internet’s ocean of information – often have no idea that what they are reading or viewing is intentionally misleading, or produced by hyper-partisan proselytizers.
A new study by researchers at Stanford University has found that the confusion among middle school, high school and even college students is profound.
The study, which tested responses to various “news” items and photographs posted to the internet, involved thousands of students and was conducted over several months during the run-up to last month’s election.
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Turns out, 80 percent of middle schoolers weren’t able to recognize “sponsored content” as advertising, rather than journalism. Four in 10 high school students shown a photo of wilted flowers posted to imgur.com – a photo-sharing site – was strong evidence of the truth of the otherwise unsupported claim contained in the caption, namely that one lingering impact of a 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan is that flowers in the area are deformed.
And college students presented with tweets touting poll results critical of the NRA seemed unsure how to vet the poll’s accuracy, or even where to start.
Teenagers and college students are among the heaviest internet users, and overwhelmingly prefer to get their news through a social media feed, rather than rely on trusted editors to sort through the good and the bad.
That makes it essential that they are taught to evaluate the reliability of news content themselves. It’s a skill set that many adults could stand some practice on, too.
Part of the solution can start at home, where parents’ influence is strongest on younger children just starting out on the internet. Just as we warn our children about privacy and safety on the internet, perhaps a lesson or two on how to vet sources of news and opinion would be helpful.
Schools, too, can help. Some of these skills go hand-in-hand with basic library and research skills that can sometimes be harder to teach as traditional librarians and even libraries themselves are on the wane in many districts.
And there is room for publishers, too, to make certain that information that is opinion is clearly marked as such, that advertising is not confused with journalism, and that source material for stories that is available elsewhere on the net is both cited and made easy to find.
All of us, young or old, use social media to talk about our world, and if those conversations are ever to rise about the shouting matches they are, we are all going to have to get better at sorting truth from fiction, fact from opinion, and reliable sourcing from capricious assertions.