Students and fake news

Recently, a photo appeared on social media that showed one of the more outspoken students from the recent Parkland High School shooting tearing up the U.S. Constitution. This incited a lot of anger, until it was revealed that the hot was fake – it had been “doctored” and circulated about social media platforms.
Fake news. It has become a term used by politicians when they want to counter a story that has popped up in the media which shows them in a negative light. No doubt about it – President Trump has coined the phrase and used it repeatedly.

But the term refers to far more than a politician’s complaints about negative press. It’s about where students get their news, and how reliable those sources really are. It’s about whether students know how to identify fake news or at least question what they hear and read.  

How Good are Students at Finding Fake News?

A recent study conducted by Stanford University showed some rather dismal results. Over the course of a year, students from middle school up through college (7,800 in all) were given information in tweets, articles and other online comments. They were asked to evaluate its credibility. A majority could not tell real news stories apart from sponsored content. They were also swayed by professional appearances of websites, believing that the information must be credible and authoritative. Other results were as follows:

  1. High school students were easily duped by photographs which were doctored, uncaptioned, and had no attribution.
  2. High school students could not tell the difference between a fake or real news story on Facebook
  3. Undergraduate students were unable to discern political biases of various groups and did not check sources to verify news stories.
  4. Stanford undergrads could not distinguish between “mainstream” and “fringe” sources.

The conclusion? The answer to the question, how good are students at finding fake news is, “not good at all.” They are not approaching internet sources of information with a sound critical eye, and, because of this fake news for students becomes the truth.

The Harms of Student Inability to Spot Fake News

Generations Y and Z have grown up connected to their devices. When they want information, when they shop, and when they communicate with others, it is through these devices. They rarely watch a respected newscast or read a trusted and more objective online newspaper. They prefer to get their “news” from social media platforms.

The problem is that these generations are moving into adult life with adult responsibilities. The impact of millennials and fake news absorption is that this generation is into career positions, many moving into leadership, and they vote. And generation z is coming up quickly. Over the next couple of decades, they will be “in charge,” and yet are not taking the time to dig enough to get to the truth. They will thus be making decisions without factual data. This does not bode well for the future of their countries.

What is the Solution?

Students and fake news onslaughts will not go away. Many recent events show that even older adults are subject to becoming “victims.” A big part of the solution must come through education, obviously. Students must be taught the following:

  1. Never take a single source for information. Check many other sources surrounding the same topic or item. And students must never assume that a Google search will always bring up the best authorities first.
  2. Students must act as their own librarians and editors, sifting through conflicting “facts” and comparing the credibility of the sources. This is a tall order for generations who are used to immediate responses to their inquiries.

We already teach critical thinking skills in many subjects. It is probably time to do the same in a required course in media literacy. And it would be very easy for teachers to create a student fake news checklist against which they would be required to “test” each resource they use for their essays and papers. If kids get into the habit of questioning and checking, the habit should follow them into adulthood, and they can more easily spot unreliable news sources.

How Can You Get Students to Care About Fake News?

It’s difficult. Many middle, high school, and even early undergraduate students have a tough time seeing the impact of fake news on their lives. They read stories, see a few fake photos and maybe get a bit excited or upset for a short period of time. They may even share such items. But, ultimately, they go on with their individual lives.

The key to getting students to care about fake news is to show the impact it has on society. And millennials and generation Z are two groups that do care about the planet, about ending suffering, and about the decisions that their political leaders are making in this regard. But they do listen to their peers.

College Students Against Fake News

Recently, Yale University sponsored a 36-hour “hackathon.” The challenge for the participants was to find some way to counter “fake news.”

The winning team, comprised of 4 students, developed a plug-in, called “Open Mind,” which is an extension of the Chrome browser, that does several things.

  1. It will pop up a “warning” when a user enters a website that has been known to publish fake news.
  2. It will also pop up a warning when a user of social media receives a story/visual that is either fake or extremely biased. It would appear, from this software that these students solve Facebook fake news in an efficient way.
  3. The software will also analyze a news story, looking at its sources and biases of those sources, and then recommend other news feeds that give alternate viewpoints.
  4. One other interesting feature is the production of a graph for a social media user that shows if he is receiving news and information that is one-sided. It then provides alternative sources for a more balanced view.

This competition demonstrates that there are college students against fake news, and perhaps it is on campuses that the real movement to combat it can begin.

The Role of Facebook

Facebook was actually one of the sponsors of the Yale competition, and according to a spokesperson for the media giant, Facebook is actually working on some products that will point readers to “related articles,” especially when they decide to share them with others.

But Facebook itself has allowed fake news to be spread. During the 2016 election, foreigners became involved in our democratic process by establishing accounts in the name of legitimate sounding organizations and fed misinformation and lies about candidates to gullible voters who then spread those stories with their Facebook communities. In some instances, students were paid for fake news dissemination. In the name of freedom of speech, Facebook did little-to-nothing to combat this activity for which it has now come under a great deal of “fire” and scrutiny by Congressional committees. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to put measures into place to detect this activity and to shut down fake accounts – success of these efforts will probably be analyzed as we move into the mid-term elections which are to come in November, 2018. Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before two Congressional committees regarding the use of Facebook to influence voting behavior with fake news.

Certainly, the activity during the 2016 election should be a lesson to all. Unfortunately, it has probably not been to many.

Free Speech Vs. Lies – Finding a Balance

America was built on the concept of freedom of speech. This is why it is the first item in our Bill of Rights. We want people to be able to voice their opinions. But, as the Supreme Court has stated in any number of decisions, free speech does have its limits. No one can yell fire” in a crowded theatre when there is not fire; no one an advocate the violent overthrow of the government; and no one can tell lies about others (slander and libel).

In the world of social media, however, it is much more difficult to nail down the perpetrators of lies. Users of social media also value their privacy, and they do not have to share their personal information publicly. And it is easy for computer savvy individuals to hide who they really are, as they publish and distribute fake news, propaganda, and lies. The onus is clearly on the recipients of such to learn how to research the credibility of the sources from which they get their information. Unfortunately, in this age of need for instant information, this does not happen often.

It’s not just students and fake news that is the problem. It is a worldwide problem for all age groups. But if we can make students care more about fake news, we can perhaps grow a generation of adults who will be far more discerning and selective about what they choose to believe and share with others.

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