We have more information at our fingertips than previous generations absorbed in a lifetime — but we’re doing a very poor job of filtering actual news from the shadier info released upon social media. Even students, the most technically capable and internet-literate people out there, are largely unable to make this distinction,  a new study found.

Image credits Oberholster Venita / Pixabay.

You’ve probably ran into a few bogus pieces of news out on your Facebook adventures at one point or another. And you may be doing a good job at dodging it for the most part. You also probably believe that everyone else can draw on the same level of news-savviness as you. You’d be wrong.

A new study led by Sam Wineburg from Stanford University found that up to a frightening 80% of surveyed US middle school students can’t tell the difference between fake news and actual news stories. An even higher percentage had no qualms to take information from anonymous Imgur posts as reliable facts at face value. Even worse, we believe that we’re doing a good job of weeding out the bad content from the rest just because we can get to it.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said lead researcher Sam Wineburg from Stanford University.

“Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Fake news can take many shapes. Sponsored or advertising content, information from dubious sources, even straight-up fabrications that go viral all qualify. For example, there was the story that one FBI agent who was directly involved in the Hillary emails investigation was found dead in his apartment. Or that Pope Francis is all for Trump being president. Both stories had less much truth in them than there’s bagel in the bagel’s hole.

Traditionally, this job of weeding out fake news was done by editors or journalists themselves through the obscure ancient practice of “fact-checking.” Since those times, social media has largely taken over the role of dedicated news agencies, and anyone can post whatever they want. To their credit, companies such as Facebook or Google are working to de-monetize or actively ban this kind of content following the electoral news disaster. But the sheer percentage found gullible by the study points to a deeper issue in how suppliers and consumers in today’s media world interact. And with 62% of US adults getting the majority of their news from social media, it’s very important we understand just how much of a problem it is. The Stanford researchers themselves admit to being “shocked” by the results.

“In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” they write.

The survey totaled 7,804 students from middle school to college levels in 12 US states. The researchers gave each participant a range of activities to perform based on their educational levels. One task presented to high school students had them rate the trustworthiness of an Imgur photo showing deformed daisies. The headline read “Fukushima Nuclear Flowers: Not much more to say, this is what happens when flowers get nuclear birth defects.” And we’ve talked about this picture before.

“[…] people started to freak out all over the internet that these plants suffered mutations due to the devastating nuclear incident from 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. According to the photographer @san_kaido, the radiation level near the daisies was measured at 0.5 μSv/h at 1m above the ground, which in fact is not much higher than the normal values,” Alexandra wrote.

“In other words, no reason to freak out.”

Everything at face value, please!

Only 20% of students thought the photo (posted anonymously) was a little dubious. But double that, 40% of students, considered the photo as “strong evidence” that the region around Fukushima is hazardous.

“We asked students, ‘Does this photograph provide proof that the kind of nuclear disaster caused these aberrations in nature?’ And we found that over 80 percent of the high school students that we gave this to had an extremely difficult time making that determination,” Wineburg told NPR.

“They didn’t ask where it came from. They didn’t verify it. They simply accepted the picture as fact.”

Another task had middle-school students sift through the Slate homepage and decide whether each piece of content was news or an ad. They were pretty good at pointing out traditional ads, such as banners, but more than 80% of the 203 students though that a native finance ad — labeled as “sponsored content” — was a piece of actual news.

Participants also had difficulty identifying credible sources from shadier ones and most even ignored cues such as the authenticated tick on verified Facebook and Twitter accounts. A task saw 30 percent of the students arguing that a fake Fox News account was more credible than the verified one because it used better graphics. And even college students had a hard time identifying the political views of candidates based on Google searches.

Before algorithms are set in place to take this news out of our feeds, the researchers say we need to focus on better educating ourselves on the issue.

“What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking,” Wineburg told NPR. “And we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”

“The kinds of duties that used to be the responsibility of editors, of librarians now fall on the shoulders of anyone who uses a screen to become informed about the world,” he added.

“And so the response is not to take away these rights from ordinary citizens but to teach them how to thoughtfully engage in information seeking and evaluating in a cacophonous democracy.”

There’s also evidence that people can start remembering fake facts as real — an effect which could extend to fake news, as well.

The report “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning” is still awaiting publication and is yet to pass peer-review, so as always take it with a grain of salt. You can read it in full here.

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