Fake news. Conspiracy theories. Misinformation. Recent political events and ominous headlines are evidence that social media has become a breeding ground for falsehoods. 

Should college students be worried? Maybe. 

Older Americans receive much of the blame for sharing fabricated stories online, but the issue spans across all age groups. One might expect the youngest generation to have a tight grasp on internet trickery, but recent data suggests otherwise. 

Students struggle with spotting false or misleading information online, according to a recent study by the Stanford History Education Group

In a survey of more than 200 college students, two-thirds trusted a satirical news headline, and 95% failed to locate the corporate lobbyist behind a supposedly “nonpartisan” website. 

“Often, students focused exclusively on the website or prompt, rarely consulting the broader web … and attributed undue weight to easily manipulated signals of credibility — such as an organization’s non-profit status, or its links to authoritative sources,” the study read. 

The authors note that “news literacy” and critical thinking have recently gotten the attention of American educators, but it’s unclear whether most young voters possess these skills. 

A lack of misinformation awareness has real-world consequences, as a July 2020 Pew Research study showed the alarming proportion of young Americans that believe the COVID-19 pandemic was planned. 

Approximately 25% of American adults — a quarter of whom are younger than 30 — believe the conspiracy theory is “probably true.” 

The News Literacy Project, a non-partisan non-profit organization, creates programs and materials intended to curb the spread of false information online. 

News Literacy Project Senior Vice President of Education Peter Adams is concerned about young people’s lack of awareness when sharing news online, and believes education may be the answer. 

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that assume “the kids are alright.” They’ve been raised in a digital world, and they’re so adept with technology in a way baby boomers aren’t. What many young people don’t understand, however, is how social media platforms work, how data is collected, and what the differences between these social media platforms are. There’s no concerted, organized effort to teach this in civics or social studies in middle school or high school, and that’s a huge problem,” Adams said. 

Adams spoke with Mustang News about misinformation, why it’s dangerous and what you can do to be a better consumer. Below is a Q&A of what he had to say. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What is misinformation?

Misinformation, broadly stated, is just information that’s false or highly misleading. This differs from disinformation, which is intentional and usually has an ideological goal or motive. A lot of people draw a bright line between the two, but what starts as an intentional falsehood with an ideological purpose can be shared unwittingly by other folks. 

It’s fundamental to understand that information is the basis for where we are as a nation. It is what fuels democracy. It’s what fuels people’s understanding of what issues matter, what our agenda should be, or what politicians should be paying attention to. It matters tremendously. 

Why do people fall for misinformation online?

I think a lot of folks conclude that, since no source of information is perfect, all sources of information are viable or equal—that’s a terrible false equivalency. Mainstream journalism isn’t perfect, but there is a big difference between standards based news coverage, and anonymous people on Facebook or Twitter, making claims and not providing any evidence.

On the other hand, some think that all sources of information are somehow out to manipulate them or that every decision is tactical. That’s not how newsrooms work, and this cynical perspective can make people very vulnerable and lead to a conspiratorial rabbit hole.

If a cynical attitude toward news is harmful, what approach should consumers take instead?

Differentiating between what counts as news and everything else is a good first step. Stories that are transparent about how they know what they know, I would call news. Stories from a random person on Twitter, even if they use all caps, are not news, so approaching user generated content and verified content differently is extremely important.

I’m not saying trust all news entirely, but you need to approach stories with certain questions. A credible news report will not simply say, “this is true, trust us.” They clearly define sources, use direct quotes, and link to external data. Readers need to become more conscious of this process, and learn to identify the facts in a story.    

What do you want students to understand about news literacy?

People often teach news literacy through a negative lens and push for distrust in journalism. It should be the opposite, however. Students should seek to ask questions like, “Do I discern any bias here?” “In what way?” “How do I feel about the sourcing in this report?” 

This generation is inheriting the largest and most complex information landscape in human history, as the cumulative amount of information on the planet is doubling every two years. This brings all kinds of great things and upsides, but a lot of pitfalls, and really bad incentives that encourage all the worst harmful behavior. Educational institutions are responsible for teaching America’s future about this landscape. 

The News Literacy Project, among many other organizations, provides materials for individuals and educators to practice their ability to identify false or misleading information online. 

When reading the news and sharing online, the News Literacy Project says it’s crucial to take a few steps to ensure the content is accurate and true: 

  1. Check to see if any professional fact-checking organizations have examined the item 
  2. Try to get the original source of the information in question. 
  3. If there are photos, do a reverse image search to check their authenticity. 
  4. Do a quick web search to see if other credible sources of information are reporting the same thing. 
  5. Check to see if you can tell who created what you’re questioning. 

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