Tag Archives: Social Media

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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One Bad Tweet Can Ruin Your Whole Day

“Never let a 140 character tweet cost you a $140,000 scholarship,” tweeted Brandon Chambers, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Marymount (VA) University. Three years earlier, a potential basketball scholarship athlete had his recruitment brutally terminated because of his Twitter activity, which the coaches said “did not represent what the university was about.” (USA Today, Jan. 5, 2015) More and more, colleges (and businesses) are requiring applicants to provide social media IDs to better screen who would be the best “fit” and to evaluate character. Woe be to him or her who posts inappropriate material, whether offensive language, derogatory comments, or incriminating photos. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences”, says David Petroff, director of athletic communications at Edgewood (Wis.) College.Teens need to realize and take responsibility for their online actions just as carefully as physical ones.

Many college and university athletic directors are using social media to check out the integrity of their potential athletes. It’s important to remember that once you put something out in the Twitterverse or on Instagram, it’s out there, it’s public. There are plenty of examples of celebrities tweeting something rash, only to have to retract it after public outcry. In the collegiate athletic world, you don’t even get that chance. (Pro football player rants abound, however–go figure.)

I have a moderate to low social media presence by choice. I have a Facebook page, Twitter (rarely use), Instagram (even more rarely), a blog, and a LinkedIn account that I haven’t updated in years. I post only those things that I could shout in church, and I’m constantly reminding my students to think before they send anything out onto the interwebs. If one bad tweet can ruin an athlete’s career (or any career for that matter), it behooves all of us to remind our teens of the calamitous effect of posting without reflection. (Of course, the whole “think before you speak/act” phrase has been around for ages…)

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