TACOMA, Wash. — How can you tell what's real and what's not when it comes to online content? Researchers have found when it comes to recognizing legitimate news sources, some adults aren’t able to spot the difference right away and the results are even worse with some teenagers.
“Despite an intense interest in digital literacy in the wake of the 2016 election students remain unprepared to navigate the digital landscape," wrote Stanford Professor Sam Wineburg in his study titled: Students' Civic and Online Reasoning.
For the better part of a year, researchers tested 3,446 teenagers on their ability to "evaluate digital sources" on the internet, in other words spotting fake news.
For Wineburg, the results can be reduced to one word: troubling.
“What we’re facing is the aftermath of a cataclysmic information revolution – and in the wake of such a revolution there is confusion,” Wineburg said.
Wineburg's study found that two-thirds of students couldn't tell the difference between a news story and sponsored content on the same page.
“This idea that I can look at a video and know whether it is authentic is the ultimate act of Hubris, it is the assumption that I am smarter than the web and that is what gets smart people into trouble,” Wineburg said.
KING 5 decided to replicate some of Wineburg's research and went to Lincoln High School in Tacoma where we showed six students some of the same stories used to test students in the Stanford study.
Some stories, like the news about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's move to Canada, received a passing grade from the students. While others, such as a photo of a shark swimming through floodwaters in Houston were deemed false upon further investigation.
“I would find this actually to be fascinating, so me personally I would look up ‘shark on a freeway,’” said Precious, one of the students participating.
The students instinctively did what professionals recommend, which is moving away from the content in question and looking for confirmation elsewhere.
“I like to look into things before I repost or share something, so I don’t look, like dumb,” said Brian, another student in the group at Lincoln High School.
For researchers, the potential spread of misinformation is about much more than a viral picture or two.
“If schools do not respond to how it is that we become informed by the world – then what we are going to see is a further decline in American’s ability to see the difference between truth and fiction," Wineburg said.
It's a burden Wineburg puts on the education system, specifically high schools, to help give students the right tools to navigate the digital landscape.
The International Federation of Library Association and Institutions (IFLA) is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It provides helpful tips on how to spot fake news, such as considering the source, reading beyond the headline, and checking if the author is credible to name a few. Here are more tips on their website.
An exclusive KING 5 News poll suggests most Washingtonians think social media companies need to do a better job pointing out suspicious articles that may not be truthful.
The survey found 74% of polled adults think those companies need to do more pointing out those articles, and 13% think they are doing enough. Another 12% weren’t sure.
Those beliefs seemed to generally hold steady across various demographic factors, including age, gender and geographic regions.
However, there was a divide when it came to political parties. The survey found 82% of Democrats think social media companies need to do more to point out suspicious articles compared to 65% of Republicans. However, 21% of Republicans think those companies are doing enough versus just 9% of Democrats.
SurveyUSA conducted the poll between Jan. 26 and Jan. 31, surveying 1,400 adults across Washington state. Of those adults, 37% were Democrats, 25% were Republicans, and 27% were Independents. Nearly half were from the Seattle metro area, a quarter were from eastern Washington, and a little more than a quarter were from western Washington, reflecting statewide population and demographics.