In the crucial final months of the election, Facebook engagement with bogus news stories outpaced legitimate news, according to BuzzFeed’s analysis. It’s an alarming trend, particularly when you look to the future. A new generation is coming of age — one that has been raised on social media and the unfiltered, unregulated Internet.
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) November 16, 2016
Despite growing up digital natives, this group is wildly under-equipped to filter what they see on social media and websites for accuracy.
That’s according to a new study, published by Stanford University History Education Group (SHEG) for the Robert McCormick Foundation.
Researchers asked middle school, high school, and college students to complete 56 tasks, like differentiating an ad from a news story and determining which tweet in a series is most reliable. They analyzed 7,804 student responses, surveying kids from under-resourced inner-city schools and well-resourced suburban schools. College assessments were administered at six universities, including Stanford.
“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: Bleak,” writes Sam Wineburg, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and the lead author of the study.
Eighty-two percent of middle school students surveyed couldn’t tell the difference between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story.
In a faux Facebook argument over gun control, high school students were asked whether a New York Times article one person cited or a chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners PAC was a more reliable source. Half of the students found the chart to be better evidence because it had “more information.” Less than 10 percent of students said the NYT article was stronger.
Sixty percent of college students failed to produce accurate results when asked to spend eight minutes investigating whether Planned Parenthood’s founder supported euthanasia. They frequently cited Google results from pro-life sites like Life News.
The Stanford researchers behind the project were floored.
“We even rejected possible tasks because we thought they would be too easy,” writes Wineburg. “Our first round of piloting shocked us into reality. Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true.”
Facebook and Google parent, Alphabet, are trying to curb the dissemination of fake news on their platforms but they won’t be able to eliminate misleading content on the web altogether. That’s why SHEG created the study. It includes each of the exercises researchers used to measure students media literacy. They want educators to use it as a guide to assess and teach students how to be smarter online.
“Never before have citizens had so much information at their fingertips,” writes Wineburg. “Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or stupider and more narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.”