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Helping Young People Separate Fact From Fiction

Experts say there's a misconception that just because young people are proficient at using digital devices, they're also good at making sense of info.
Posted at 8:51 PM, Jan 26, 2022

Researchers at the Stanford History Education Group completed a national survey of more than 3,000 American high schoolers looking at how they evaluate real sources online. Joel Breakstone, who heads the Stanford Group, says "it's the largest study to date of its kind."

Breakstone has been studying news literacy among high schoolers for the past six years. He says they found that students struggle to make even basic evaluations about the validity of online information. 

"Students had trouble, for instance, when we presented students with a website that denied humans' role in global warming," he said. 

According to Breakstone, 96% of the students could not identify that the website actually had connections to the fossil fuel industry, which is information that he says was immediately available through simple online searches. 

"Similarly, when we showed them a Facebook video claiming to show voter fraud during the 2016 presidential Democratic primaries, they overwhelmingly took it at face value again," he continued.

A quick Google search Breakstone says would have led them to a whole series of articles debunking the video, including one from the BBC indicating the video that was viewed more than a million times was actually about voter fraud in Russia and had nothing to do with fraud in the U.S. 

"Out of more than 3,000 students, only three — less than one tenth of one percent — made that connection to the Russian source for the videos," Breakstone said.

Researchers also compared how Stanford freshmen, young people in Silicon Valley and history professors stacked up against fact checkers from some of the nation's leading news organizations. They found striking differences in how well they evaluated unfamiliar websites. 

"The fact checkers were way better than the Stanford students or the historians. And the reason was that they didn't stay on an unfamiliar website," Breakstone said. 

One of those websites was minimumwage.com.

"Most of the students and many of the historians took that website at face value," Breakstone continued. 

The site says it's a project of the Employment Policies Institute and is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. 

"All of the fact checkers left the website and quickly discovered that the institute is actually run by a PR firm that is working for the food and beverage industry and has a vested interest in employment issues and particularly, minimum wage," Breakstone said. 

While he isn't saying everyone must become a professional fact checker. He does say that critical thinking and cross-referencing are key to being better informed.

"We think in our current digital age, being able to find good information online is a critical component of being a participating member in our democracy," Breakstone said.

One tip he says — just because a website ends in .edu or .org, doesn't necessarily mean it's trustworthy. 

By Ash-har Quraishi, Scripps National Desk.