This fake news thing is bigger than just election results. “Fake news” has become a label people freely put on facts they don’t agree with. People will call something “fake news” when in fact it’s true. They just disagree. But call something by a label enough and it often sticks. Source: this past election.
But can young people even tell the difference between fake and real news? Do they know how to evaluate information and how to verify facts? A Stanford University study demonstrates how big the problem may be.
Couple the recent Pew Research study that shows more than 62% of people get their news from social media and this Stanford study and it paints a picture. The Stanford study shows widespread difficulties among students in sorting fact from fiction and even understanding the need to verify.
Here’s an example of the dozens of items presented to students. Middle school, high school, and college students were given this information and picture:
On March 11, 2011, there was a large nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. This image was posted on Imgur, a photo sharing website, in July 2015.
Does this post provide strong evidence about the conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant? Explain your reasoning.
“Less than 20% of students constructed “Mastery” responses, or responses that questioned the source of the post or the source of the photo. On the other hand, nearly 40% of students argued that the post provided strong evidence because it presented pictorial evidence about conditions near the power plant. A quarter of the students argued that the post did not provide strong evidence, but only because it showed flowers and not other plants or animals that may have been affected by the nuclear radiation.” – Stanford Study
Many just accepted the picture as fact without ever questioning the source. If it makes you feel any better, the students didn’t do much better when it came to deciding whether something was an advertisement or not.
As we know, though, it’s not just students. We’re being bombarded by hyper-partisan and less-than-truthful news stories (yes, fake news) as a regular diet.
Speaking of the election, a BuzzFeed news analysis found that in the final three months leading up to the Presidential election, the top performing fake news stories on Facebook got more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets (you know, legitimate sources of news).
The top 20 fake stories from hyper-partisan sources and outright hoax websites generated 8.7 million shares and comments on Facebook. The 20 best performing election stories from 19 major news websites (places like the NY Times, Washington Post, NBC News) generated 7.3 million reactions, shares and comments.
Many of the fake news stories look like legitimate websites. This creates, as Jayson Demers wrote in Forbes, an “illusion of authority.”
We’re not helping ourselves. 59% of all links shared on social media aren’t clicked on at all. They’re shared, but not read. A titillating headline may be enough to cause something to go viral and even though the article itself may refute the headline, most people never know. We see sharing-without-reading all the time. We’ll post a story on our news website and people comment without ever reading it, sometimes arguing that we’re biased. If they’d had read the article, the facts would have agreed with their viewpoint.
The sheer size of Facebook and other social media sites is like blaring things with a megaphone. What gets said and shared, gets amplified. The more it’s shared, the more it’s… well… shared. The more engagement tells Facebook’s algorithm that it’s something people are interested in, so it shows up more prominently in news feeds.
It’s not just fake news that’s the problem
We’re all a product of our education, our upbringing, and what we’re exposed to. There’s always been tabloid magazines after all. Social media just seems to give it a bigger exposure.
Speaking of students, there’s also been debate on whether school textbooks are being rewritten to present a particular political viewpoint of subjects as varied as global warming, evolution, or slavery.
Maybe schools need to start teaching critical thinking in terms of verifying information, whether it’s from social media, mainstream news sources, or even textbooks.