For many millennials, it is impossible to imagine a day without turning on a phone or computer, accessing Twitter or Google News, and watching as floods of highlights appear on their screens. While many teens today consider themselves to be technologically advanced—skilled navigators in the sea of Internet content—this is often not the case.
The digital media environment intensifies the presence of false information and enables poor critical judgement. A recent Stanford University study reveals harsh findings involving the ability of teens to determine fact from fiction. The implications of online “unreality” are numerous, and we should be demanding that the top tech users today focus more energy on how to become educated information consumers.
The incomprehensibly large and varied domain of online information should be a progression in the pursuit of knowledge, truth and an all-around beneficial tool for youth. But, it is not that simple. The November 2016 Stanford study shows what researchers found when students from around the country were presented with online news and asked to critically evaluate it. The results are not only disturbing, but offer a clear glimpse into the unrealities the Internet perpetuates.
The researchers “designed, piloted, and validated fifteen assessments, five each at middle school, high school, and college levels.” In one assessment, high school students were presented with a post from photo sharing website Imgur that included “a picture of daisies along with the claim that the flowers had ‘nuclear birth defects’ from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.”
Results found that these students focused on the photograph and “relied on it to evaluate the trustworthiness of the post.” They did not note important details including the source of the photo. “Less than twenty percent of students … questioned the source of the post or the source of the photo.”
College students were presented with a tweet from MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy organization, that claimed the NRA is out of touch with gun owners and their own members. The tweet also indicated “Public Policy Polling conducted the poll.”
Results showed that only a few students noted that the poll was conducted by a professional polling firm and that this adds to its credibility. Also, “less than a third of students” thought that the clear political partisanship of the publisher -- an open supporter of gun control measures -- may have influenced the tweet. Overall, the students showed a shocking inability to assess information. The results suggest a growing need for incorporating civic online reasoning courses into school curricula.
Future generations of media consumers will know the internet as their only source of information. Without an understanding of the dynamics of the Internet or the acquirement of debunking methods, future generations will become more tolerant of misinformation and more hostile to facts than ever before. New efforts must be geared toward fostering an awareness of the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction, in order to see millennials and all Internet users become educated, tech-savvy truth-seekers.