Monthly Archives: February 2017

Students, Fake News, and Critical Thinking

There has been a lot going on in the United States these past few months, and much has been said about the proliferation of “fake news” covering recent events, especially on social media sites such as FaceBook and Twitter. A recent study by Stanford University found that the majority of students they surveyed from middle school through college could not distinguish between a native ad sponsored content and a real news story. And the Wall Street Journal reported that “[m]any students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source.” (WSJ, 11/2016) When shown a tweet with a photo of mutated daisies purportedly from the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, nearly 40% of the students in the Stanford study argued that the photo provided pictorial evidence of nuclear radiation at the power plant. Wow. Credibility judged on whether or not there’s a pretty picture. Only 20% of the students refuted the evidence and questioned the source of the post or the photo itself.

The study points out the need to teach information literacy along with other scholastic skills. Currently, the overall ability of young people to reason about information found on the Internet is “bleak.” (Stanford History Education Group.) In the “old days,” people could rely on editors, publishers, and other fact checkers to determine if information presented was reliable. These days, not so much. Michael Lynch, a philosopher who studies technological change, observed that the Internet is “both the world’s best fact-checker
and the world’s best bias confirmer—often at the same time. (Lynch, New York Times, 3/2016.)

Educators need to address how students gather and interpret information online on social and other digital platforms. False and biased information comes from many sources, including deceptive advertising, satirical websites, and misleading partisan posts and articles. (Schellenbarger, WSJ. 11/2016.)  Students need to be savvy about choosing and believing their Internet sources, and we need to instill in them a healthy skepticism. As the Stanford study says, the ability to sort facts from fiction is imperative for civic online reasoning.

I teach a lesson on source evaluation to English classes that uses the CRAAP test method: how to determine the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of information presented, whether found on the Internet or elsewhere. This year, I have a new commitment to instill in my students the skepticism necessary to wade through the phony, the bogus, the counterfeit, the misleading, the you-name-it fake news. I want them to step back and question things, not just consume everything mindlessly from their social media sites. I want them to develop the sleuthing skills needed to discover information that is well-researched and well-thought out. I want them to become curious, thoughtful, well-rounded members of society. I have my work cut out for me.

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