Breda O’Brien: Teenagers are not that internet savvy

Young people are easily duped when evaluating information on social media

Hillary Clinton warns that fake news can have "real world consequences", alluding to an incident at the weekend in which a man fired an assault rifle in a Washington DC pizza outlet after reading a false news story about Clinton running a child sex ring out of the restaurant. Clinton speaks at a ceremony for departing Senate minority leader Harry Reid. Video: C-SPAN


Think your teens are internet savvy? Think again. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) published research last November which looked at how capable teens aged 11-18 were of evaluating the reliability of online sources.

According to the executive summary, “‘our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend.

“But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The bar was not set high for what the researchers call “civic online reasoning”. They wanted to know whether middle-schoolers could distinguish between an advertisement and a news story. They couldn’t.

They wanted to know whether high school students would be able to evaluate the reliability of a claim made on a photosharing website about the consequences of nuclear fallout. They weren’t.

And finally, they wanted to know whether college students who spend hours every day online could see that the fact that a tweet came from a heavily ideological source might raise questions about bias. They couldn’t.

Mind you, the researchers never looked at the tendency to unquestioningly believe certain sources and distrust others.

If someone automatically distrusts all information from mainstream media, for example, it also shows a lack of civic online reasoning.

In the same way, to refuse to believe anything from a source that has an established ideological viewpoint, even if the information is true, is also a flawed approach. The SHEG sample sizes were also relatively small.

Fake news

“Native advertising”, or content that is sponsored but designed to look like news stories, is much harder to identify.

For example, in the SHEG study, more than 80 per cent of students believed that an online article identified by the words “sponsored content” was a real news story, even when they understood the term.

The students were shown a Slate. com home page featuring a traditional advertisement, a news story and an article with the headline, “The real reasons women don’t go into tech”.

The latter was clearly labelled as sponsored content, but this made no difference to four out of five of the young students.

The older students did not fare much better. Students aged 14-18 were shown a photograph of allegedly mutant daisies with the claim that the mutations resulted from the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

They were asked whether the photograph, which was distributed widely after being uploaded to Imgur photosharing website, constituted strong evidence for the poster’s claim that the daisies were suffering from “nuclear birth defects”.

More than 80 per cent of the students failed to give solid reasons why the claim might be questionable. (In fact, while in theory it could be due to radiation, it is possible to find the same kind of mutations in your own garden.)

Finally, they asked undergraduates whether a tweet from claiming that opinion polling showed that the National Rifle Association was out of touch with its own members was likely to be reliable.

Many students could not properly evaluate whether the political agenda of an organisation was relevant, whether it mattered if the polling firm was reputable, and did not consider checking whether the original poll question was loaded or neutral.

Murky area

While establishing the reliability of sources is important, internet advertising is a particularly murky area.

Recently, the London Times published an article about a social media agency, Social Chain, that employs 100 young people whose average age is 21.

They have bought up social media accounts with huge numbers of followers and use them to advertise. Most young people have no idea that they are being targeted in this way.

When Social Chain employees were challenged by a Disney executive to make Disney trend on Twitter, they managed to dominate UK Twitter for hours with #DisneyScenesIWillNeverGetOver.

The people reminiscing about the death of Bambi’s mother would have had no idea that they had just been manipulated by social media mavens.

Using popular social media accounts to manipulate young people into parting with their parents’ cash is one thing, but there is another impact that is much harder to quantify – the fact that the internet shapes more than buying patterns.

It also promotes a world view simply by repetition.

Just as it conditions people into viewing themselves as consumers, it conditions them to accept a particular worldview uncritically.

At the same time, heavy internet usage appears to promote political passivity, except in rare cases, because “liking” or retweeting takes so much less effort than getting out there and doing something.

The term used by SHEG, civic online reasoning, is a clunky phrase describing an essential skill. But the scary thought is that the observed lack of it in young people is not likely to change when they eventually become adults.

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