Years ago, when the Internet was young and so were my kids, I remember being pretty creeped out as I watched them research their school papers. A paper on The Scarlet Letter had one visiting witches’ covens as academic research. A paper on the Civil War had one earnestly getting the facts from white supremacist sites. If you read it on the Internet, it must be true, right?
The dawning of fake news. As a parent, I became dedicated to digital literacy and together with my kids we did our best to decipher cryptic URLs, crazy offers and facts that just didn’t jive.
Fast forward and it’s hard to even put a percentage on the amount of material on the Internet that could be deemed “true” from a “reliable source”. Until the Internet comes packaged with a built-in lie detector (and it will if you believe in algorithms) we’re all going to have to sweat this one out.
The sad part for kids? When you’re overwhelmed, you become apathetic, skeptical and distrustful. Common Sense Media published a large study that put the spotlight on how kids ages 10-18 think about news coverage. They’re not particularly happy news campers. Top-line results showed they felt under-represented in the news, and saw bias, especially racial and gender bias, in news coverage.
More troubling, only 44% of kids surveyed agree that they can tell fake news stories from real ones. And, of those surveyed who shared a news story online in the last six months, 31% admitted to finding out later that the story they shared was wrong or inaccurate. (Kids, don’t feel like you’re alone on this one! You should read my Facebook feed.)
Early trend spotters, Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), published a study a year ago which showed that a dismaying number of kids couldn’t identify fake news even by simple deductions like looking at the URLs or who sponsored the content. They tested middle, high school and university students by showing them articles on Facebook, Twitter and blogs and asked them to judge whether the stories were true.
The fight against fake news will be one of baby steps. Facebook is testing “disputed news” by giving you a way to report news that you believe is fake. If they get enough reports alleging a story is fake they’ll send it to a third party for fact checking. While well-meaning, it doesn’t take much to speculate on what happens when fact checkers have their own biases. Facebook is also working on algorithms to help fact check news content (another sticky wicket). Techlicious has a walk-through of how the new Facebook fake news feature works.
Fake news is a problem that haunts parents and kids alike but no surprise, it’s kids who are relying most heavily on news from social media sites. The Common Sense study indicated that kids trusted their families and teachers as sources for news, but preferred to get news online. Less than 25% preferred getting news from traditional media like newspapers or TV. And of the 76% who said they got their news online nearly half got their news from Facebook.
What’s to be done? First, grab your teens and tweens right now and explain that Facebook is not a news agency. Just like Uber doesn’t own cars and Airbnb doesn’t own hotels, Facebook does not have news reporters. And in an era where any Joe Schmo can start a news service, you need learn to dissect the online headlines and navigate away from anything that smells fake. If you want to geek out over fake news spotting, read this wonderful list of clues developed by an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College. (By the way, the same professor is convinced that even though her tips have gone viral, they get passed along without being read.
Ending on a note of optimism, remember this generation loves authenticity and real-ness. Now we just have to sharpen their senses and whet their appetites to work a little harder at getting the facts.
Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT), a team of technophiles who bring together top experts and the latest innovations that intersect lifestyle and technology. LIDT produces conferences and expos at CES and throughout the year focusing on how technology enhances every aspect of our lives through the eyes of today’s digital consumer.