Picture someone who has just fallen for a fake-news article — who, for example, is feverishly sharing a convoluted story about how Hillary Clinton runs a child-abuse ring out of a D.C. pizzeria with John Podesta. They’re middle-aged or older, right? After all, it’s the nation’s uncles and grandmas, not its #teens, who are credulous and tech-unsavvy enough to fall into the many tar pits of fake news dotting the online landscape.
Except maybe not. Recently, NPR reported last week on All Things Considered, Stanford professor Sam Wineburg ran a study in which he asked “asked more than 7,800 students to evaluate online articles and news sources.” The results were demoralizing. “Large portions of the students — at times as much as 80 or 90 percent — had trouble judging the credibility of the news they read,” said host Kelly McEvers.
From the interview:
SAM WINEBURG: We showed them a picture of daisies that looked like they were deformed. There was a claim on a website that they were the result of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima district in Japan. The photograph had no attribution. There was nothing that indicated that it was from anywhere.
And we asked students, is — does this photograph provide proof that the kind of nuclear disaster caused these aberrations in nature? And we found that over 80 percent of the high school students that we gave this to them had an extremely difficult time making that determination. They didn’t ask where it came from. They didn’t verify it. They simply accepted the picture as fact.
MCEVERS: So what do you think can be done about this?
WINEBURG: We simply have not caught up to the way these sources of information are influencing the kinds of conceptions that we develop on a day-to-day basis. But the only way that we can deal with these kinds of issues are through educational programs and recognizing that the kinds of things that we worry about — these — the ability to determine what is reliable or not reliable — that is the new basic skill in our society.
On the one hand, it isn’t surprising that young people have the same cognitive biases and kneejerk tendencies as their parents and grandparents. On the other, many kids spend all day online, and you would think such constant exposure to the internet would bring with it some level of facility with navigating competing and bogus claims. Maybe not. Sad!
A study like this lends credence to the idea that, as a result of those biases and tendencies, there’s something plain broken and off about the way people process information they find online — off in a way that makes it extremely easy for them to be victimized by sponsored content dressed up to look like real stories, or InfoWars “scoops,” or Exclusive Offers, or whatever else. It’s a fundamental indictment of the way digital media operates and what it does to us. Humans have always been credulous, but never before has our credulity been attacked on so many simultaneous fronts.