Can you tell whether the news you come across is biased? Can you spot a fraudulent social media post? Can your family? Current technology allows misinformation to spread far and fast. Social media is one obvious conduit—a study conducted at MIT concluded that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be re-tweeted than true ones, for example. It’s also getting easier to make false news look all the more convincing. Artificial Intelligence researchers last year at the University of Washington showed a real video of Barack Obama giving a speech, side-by-side with a fabricated video of him uttering the same words. Even skeptical viewers would be hard-pressed to tell the two videos apart.
Young media consumers have been deemed particularly easy to fool. Researchers at Stanford University surveyed 7,804 students from middle schools, high schools and colleges from 12 states, across a broad socioeconomic range, and found that students in every group they studied had trouble sorting media facts from media fiction. Middle schoolers couldn’t tell native advertisements from articles. High school students tended to believe that photographs are inherently credible even when they looked noticeably surreal. And about half of the study’s college students—when asked to evaluate the credibility of a tweet about gun owners’ voting habits—made their assessments without clicking on the link that the data supposedly came from.
So how can kids and teens navigate through the daily barrage of information and misinformation? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Fake news isn’t new
Hug High School teacher Sonia Kretschmer, who teaches media literacy skills in her social studies classes, pointed out that there’s been misleading news for as long as there’s been news—and that the spread of misinformation has kept up with each era’s technology. Her 11th and 12th-grade students analyze Colonial-era pamphlets and yellow journalism—a nickname given to a rash of unsubstantiated, sensationalist reporting in the late 19th century, an early equivalent to today’s clickbait.
To teach her students about bias, Kretschmer said, “We look at the media portrayal of the sinking of the Lusitania and our entry into World War I.” Her students read two different newspaper articles, looking at “what information they give and what they’re calling facts when the other newspapers report something totally different, but they say it’s fact as well. … So, students can really see this has been an issue throughout our history. It’s not just something that’s brand new.”
But today’s fake news is different
False or unsubstantiated reports can look exactly like honest, verified ones. In one recent example, the largest Black Lives Matter Facebook group had 800,000 followers. It looked and sounded legitimate, and it raised about $100,000. But it turned out to be a fundraising scam run from Australia, and none of the money went toward Black Lives Matter efforts.
“The fake news that is generated as hoaxes or as satire or as propaganda or whatever, that has also exploded and is also being distributed at light speed,” said local journalist and author Frank Mullen. “It’s just the chaos of the whole thing—you don’t know what to believe any more, and when you get so many realities thrown at you, how do you pick one?”
Contemplating these questions led him to schedule a three-hour class on the subject through Truckee Meadows Community College in June, geared toward both educators and the general public.
Read like a fact-checker
The Stanford researchers who looked at middle-school, high-school and college students advised that the best way to wade through potentially false news is to learn to read like a fact checker.
That’s exactly what Mullen plans to address in detail in his class. It doesn’t take any special training to get started, though. He shared some simple advice: For “something that kind of looks legitimate, basically, look at, number one, consider the source. Is it coming from a well-known media outlet, or is it coming from some obscure thing that sounds like a media outlet? And if you’re not sure … Google it. See what it is. Is it a satirical site? Is it a propaganda site? Is it a Russian bot? … If there are links in the story that supposedly support what they’re saying, click on the link, and see if it actually says what they claim it says.”
There are also several sites dedicated solely to fact-checking. Among the biggest and most reliable are Snopes.com, Politifact.com and Factcheck.org. And if you’re unsure whether a photo is legitimate, Google Reverse Search can lead you to its original source, which should give you some clues.
Know your biases
“Social media reinforces what you already thought,” said Kretschmer. “It’s that hive mentality. You hang out with people that are likeminded. And now it’s just on a global scale, where you’re making friends with people across the United States … who are likeminded, so you’re kind of just reinforcing those thoughts that you already had.”
There’s a scientific term for this tendency—confirmation bias. Kretschmer sees the phenomenon in her students often, and adults are subject to it, as well. Mullen has some advice for combatting it: “If you say, ‘This confirms what I thought,’ you ought to be suspicious of that.” If something you read makes you think, “Dammit, I knew Trump had been in an insane asylum at some time in his life, I just knew it!” … that’s probably worth checking out.
“And also be aware of the slant,” Mullen added. “The New York Post is a pro-Trump newspaper. The New York Daily News is an anti-Trump newspaper. So, know that going in. They’re both news sources, but you need to know what their agendas are.”
If you’re not sure offhand what kind of political leaning a given media outlet has, Media Bias Fact Check is a helpful site that reveals which ones are left-biased, right-biased and least biased. And if you’d like to learn more about what’s behind confirmation bias and why we’re subject to it, a 2017 episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast expands on the topic briefly and clearly. It’s titled, “When It Comes To Politics and ‘Fake News,’ Facts Aren’t Enough.”
“The other part is just personal vigilance,” said Mullen. “You’ve got to just be more skeptical than ever, as individuals.”
One way to do that is to make a rule for yourself and your family members: If you have a strong emotional reaction to a headline or meme, note that it was probably calculated more to elicit a gut reaction than to convey something accurately—and look into it. Find the data source that the statement came from, and assess its credibility.
And Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of National Association for Media Literacy Education, gave some advice on that group’s site that can be applied to every media interaction, every day: “We focus on one simple piece of advice: teach your kids to ask questions.”