Following the recent US Presidential election, the topic of ‘fake news’ has been widely discussed. Data revealing that people engaged with the top five fake election news stories on Facebook more than the top five real stories has shown how important it is that we analyse the credibility of our news sources.

But surely, young people – digital natives – who routinely get their news and information from social media, are savvy about what is true and what is false? Unfortunately, research has uncovered that this is not the case.

Over a period of six months, Stanford History Education Group set students across 12 US states 56 tasks to discover their ability to judge the trustworthiness of the information they read online. 7,804 responses from students of secondary school to under graduate age and from a wide range of institutions were collected and evaluated. The overwhelming conclusion being that the majority of young people, struggle to evaluate the credibility and reliability of the information shared online.

For example, in one task 80% of middle school students (11-13yrs) could not differentiate between native advertising (identifiable by the words ‘sponsored content’) and real news stories. And in another task less than 20% of high school students (14-18yrs) questioned the source of a photograph claiming to show the effects of a nuclear disaster even though the photograph was posted on Imgur a site where anybody can share content. Around 40% of students believed the photograph itself (without a source) was enough evidence of the impact of nuclear disaster. You can read the full report here.

So how can we support students and young people?

With the results of the Stanford report and the knowledge that there are people making their money out of being ‘fake news producers’ it is more important than ever that our young people are well educated in how to differentiate between real and fake news stories and are able to uncover bias in the content surrounding them on social media and in the online world.
Here are some ideas to support your students:

  • Ensure students understand that the top search result on Google is not necessarily the most reliable one; Google’s decision about who is at the top of the result is based on a wide variety of factors. Remind students that they can use alternative search engines such as BingDuckDuckGoIxquick and WolframAlpha.
  • Encourage students to evaluate online articles through ‘lateral reading’ – leaving the site they are on and researching the name of the organisation and its owners or bosses, checking to see where and from whom the information that they are reading is from.
  • Check the bias of information by using the TRAAP test, this asks students to evaluate the timeliness, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of the information. Students should question whether the content is sponsored (and if so by whom?). They must also understand that the ‘About’ section on a website is written by the website owners and thus is heavily biased.
  • Build student’s confidence with trusted online resources such as those available via JCS. Your students will know that they are accessing reliable information and will have access to academic resources not available on the open web. It will also save them a lot of time and help prepare them for further education.

Whilst some of the ideas above may seem like common sense it is clear from the Stanford research that the majority of students are either unaware or do not follow good research practice. By empowering students to differentiate between fake and real news stories they not only develop good research skills but also learn to question and explore the world around them.