Researchers at Stanford have discovered something depressing about America’s youth. They’ve found that in a survey of more than 7,000 students, America’s future leaders can’t tell the difference between fake news and real news.
What’s worse, is they don’t even seem to question the authenticity of news, preferring to accept everything at face value.
A Quick Overview Of The Findings
The Stanford team found that your average middle schooler wasn’t even able to tell the difference between sponsored content and actual news.
They showed that this age group can identify a traditional advert but that they don’t understand what “sponsored content” even means as a term. Some students spotted the wording, but none asked what it meant or how it might affect the truth of what they were reading.
High schoolers were willing to accept pretty much any kind of photographic evidence without so much as raising an eyebrow. The vast majority were 100% convinced by a fake photo of flowers supposedly deformed by radiation in Japan.
Nor were this group of children able to pick a genuine news source from a fake one on Facebook. While 25% of students recognized the blue tick (verified account) and what it meant, more than 30% argued that the fake news source was more valid than the real one.
College Students Did No Better
You may think that once they hit college children get wiser, but it turned out not to be the case for spotting fake news.
This age group of children couldn’t evaluate the likelihood that a Tweet was telling the truth.
And if you think an Ivy League education is representative of intelligence then think again – the majority of Stanford University students couldn’t tell the difference between a reliable, reputable mainstream source and utter lunacy from a fringe group.
Worryingly, more than half of them thought the fringe group was more credible and reliable than the mainstream group and as the researchers tell it, “Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics [the mainstream group in the test] never uncovered the differences between the two groups.”
How Did We Get To This Point?
To understand how a generation of children could grow up so uninformed, we need to take a look at what led us to this point.
In the past decade, social media has gone from being a fringe activity undertaken by wealthy, savvy people to a global phenomenon in which nearly everyone can (and does) play a part.
To complement this rise in social media usage, more and more of the world’s marketing budget is being spent on those platforms. With a billion eyeballs on Facebook alone, what’s not to like about this new opportunity to reach the masses?
The trouble is that people don’t like advertising. Adweek recently reported that nearly 1/3 of adults have installed adblocking software on their devices. Apple’s recent update to Safari includes automatic adblocking. This trend is only expected to rise in the coming years.
When people don’t like advertising, marketers change their strategy. They stop advertising and choose “sponsored content” instead. This is content which isn’t quite blatant advertising and often purports to deliver some form of news or truth with a benefit to the reader.
Of course, the real benefit comes in selling products to deliver that “benefit” for the marketer.
This kind of content barely existed a decade ago – today, social media feeds are drowning in it.
The traditional news was subject to a journalistic code of ethics, “sponsored content” is subject to no such code. When there are no ethical obligations, to tell the truth, it is near inevitable that some people won’t tell the truth and instead will focus on messages that benefit their bottom line. Fake news is the outcome.
What Can Be Done About Fake News?
Firstly, it seems obvious that there needs to be a shift in American education. If children don’t know that they should question the authenticity of news stories and how to do so – how can they be expected to draw the distinction?
Secondly, Americans need to demand that the social media companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook play their part in tackling this menace.
They have made some moves already. Facebook has begun by tagging stories it believes may be problematic with “contested by fact checkers.”
Analysts say this is not good enough, “Tagging such stories as disputed is not an effective solution to this problem. Because merely seeing a news story increases its perception of veracity. According to the mere-exposure effect, one of the oldest and most validated discoveries in psychology history, people have a preference for familiar shapes and ideas, particularly when they aren’t exactly sure why those stimuli are familiar,” opines one paper published by researchers at Yale University.
In fact, it may require regulatory oversight to force these companies to act more strongly to clamp down on fake news.
Even South Park Sees The Problem
A recent episode of South Park, as reported in TechCrunch, took a look at the issue of fake news. In particular, it looked at the financial incentive for social media companies to keep spreading misinformation. “It poses Mark Zuckerberg as an indecipherable bully protecting fake news spreaders for profit and says kids can’t recognize lies on the app, while blaming everyone for allowing Facebook so deep into our lives.”
The episode came about because as one character says, “Children lack the cognitive ability to determine what’s true.”
That’s in part because our education system demands respect for authority, partly because we don’t teach children to challenge this stuff and partly because nobody saw this explosion of fake news coming. Everybody, including the education system, is rushing to catch up.
What Should We Do Next?
As Sam Wineberg, the Professor of Education at Stanford who conducted the recent survey into fake news says, “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking. And we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”
He also knows what needs to be done, “And so the response is not to take away these rights from ordinary citizens but to teach them how to thoughtfully engage in information seeking and evaluating in a cacophonous democracy.”