As It Happens

Many students can't tell difference between real and fake news, study finds

Joel Breakstone from Stanford University says young people are tech savvy but most of them can’t separate fact from fiction when it comes to online content.
A study from Stanford University tested students' understanding of the trustworthiness of online content, including the ability to tell real news from advertisements and sponsored content. (Reuters)

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A new study shows that most young people have trouble judging the trustworthiness of content they find online.

Just because our young people have grown up around digital devices and are able to navigate them well, their ability to make sense of the content is not nearly as well developed.- Joel Breakstone

The study's publication comes after fake news spread across the internet during the U.S. election. Stanford University took middle-school, high school and college students through a series of tests, ranging from deciding on the veracity of tweets, to identifying which articles on a web page were native advertisements or sponsored content. In some cases, as many as 80 to 90% of the 7,804 students failed.

One of the tests used a picture from the image sharing site Imgur, that shows deformed flowers with the title "Fukushima Nuclear Flowers," and, "Not much more to say, this is what happens when fowers get nuclear birth defects." 

An images from the image sharing site Imgur, showing deformed daisies. The title and caption suggest they grew near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. (Stanford History Eductation Group)

The researchers asked the students if the picture is evidence about the conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant after the nuclear disaster.

"The majority of students did not come up with reasons why this is a problematic piece of evidence," says
Joel Breakstone is the director of the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University. (Stanford History Education Group)
Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group. "They did not ask questions like, where was this photo actually taken? Was this near the reactor? Were these daisies actually affected by the radiation?

"There's no evidence that those deformations are caused by nuclear radiation or that these are daisies from Japan at all. These could just as readily have been taken in Canada."

While the Stanford study looked at young people, Breakstone says that, "recent research suggests that this problem is not limited to high school students." He points to studies that asked people to identify fake news in their Facebook feeds, and found that, "the vast majority of adults are not able to do that, and research certainly conforms to what we found."

Increasingly, organizations online seek to mask their true identities.- Joel Breakstone

Breakstone uses the example of a protest in Austin, Texas following the election of Donald Trump. In this case, a rumour began online with someone suggesting that the protesters were "professionals" who were being bussed in.

This tweet, that has since been deleted, suggested that anti-Trump protesters in Austin, Texas were professionals that had been bussed in. (@erictucker / Twitter)

The rumour spread quickly, and ended up being tweeted out by Donald Trump himself. As a result, Breakstone says, "that story suddenly had currency across the country and the world in a way that could never have been possible previously."

While rumours and false information on not new or unique to the time of social media, Breakstone says that, "the issue has changed because of the speed at which information spreads online, and the fact that now anyone can be a publisher. The ability to put forth information on Facebook or on Twitter or other social media platforms required a greater degree of diligence."

"In the past it was one thing to have a friend describing a particular urban legend,and you've convinced your friend at a given high school. It's a very different thing when one individual can create a totally false story that is then shared hundreds of thousands of times in a matter of days on Facebook."

For more on this story listen to our full interview with Joel Breakstone.