Digital natives have a much easier time sharing a Facebook video or retweeting a funny meme than evaluating the bias and credibility of the original content, according researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) released the report, which shows that students struggled to identify the content creator and to distinguish advertisements from news articles.
“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said lead author Professor Sam Wineburg, who also founded SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”
Students across twelve states were given a series of age-appropriate assessments to see how they evaluated the trustworthiness of articles or even tweets. The researchers collected a total of 7,804 responses across grade levels.
For example, middle schoolers were asked to explain how trustworthy an article on financial planning that was sponsored by a bank, or even authored by bank executive, might be. In that test, few students cited the sponsorship or authorship as key reasons to not trust the piece.
Another set of middle schoolers had to identify online content as either news or ads. Students could identify an ad with a coupon code, but 80 percent believed a “native ad” — a piece bearing the tag “sponsored content” — was an authentic news story.
“In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the authors wrote.
High schoolers were assessed on their familiarity with helpful social media conventions, like the blue checkmark that shows Facebook and Twitter verify the account as legitimate. Students were shown an article from a verified Fox News account, and an article by a phony page meant to look like Fox News. Only a quarter of the students could identify and explain what the blue checkmark meant; worse, over 30 percent of the students argued that the fraudulent account was more trustworthy because of the intriguing graphics in the article.
“This finding indicates that students may focus more on the content of social media posts than on their sources,” the authors wrote. “Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.”
Wineburg hopes to use this research to develop a curriculum for teachers that updates web literacy lesson plans for our social media-saturated internet. “Many of the materials on web credibility were state-of-the-art in 1999. So much has changed but many schools are stuck in the past,” said Wineburg’s colleague Joel Breakstone, the director of SHEG.
An executive summary of the report is available here.