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Growing up in the age of fake news: How to educate for critical thinking

How has social media changed the way we consume news? 


Social media has forever changed the way we consume news. Information that was once filtered by the press and adhered to professional standards, can be published by anyone online. Trained professionals that aimed to ensure accuracy, fairness, and civility now compete with sensationalist headlines, clickbait, and fake news. With millions of news articles published online every day, how do we know what information is reliable and how do we begin to evaluate what we consume? 


Social media has seen the rise of content that thrives on likeability and shareability, leading to many news websites prioritising clickbait and sensationalism over sharing reliable and accurate news. Alongside this, people don’t read as much as they used to. In fact, the average time people spend reading a news article now is 55 seconds (Lawson, 2023). People tend to read headlines, and not much else. This phenomenon is described as “sharing without reading” Ward et al. (2022). When we don’t read news articles thoroughly, we are more likely to share information that is false or misleading. 


What is fake news? 


At its core, fake news is a “story that is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources, or quotes” (Desai & Oehrli, 2023). But fake news stories are typically more nuanced than this definition - they may contain some element of truth, but it is often sensationalised, inflammatory, or lacks contextualising truth. 


Fake news “exists within a larger ecosystem of mis- and disinformation” (Desai & Oehrli, 2023). While the former spreads false information regardless of whether there is intent to mislead, the latter deliberately misleads or shares biassed information, manipulated narratives or facts, and propaganda.



(d’I. Treen et al., 2020).


In recent years, the term “fake news” has also been used to discredit opposing points of view, particularly in social and political contexts, and some people use it to “cast doubt on their opponents, controversial issues or the credibility of some media organisations” (Desai & Oehrli, 2023). Fake news is spread for many reasons; political gain, propaganda, monetary gain, confirmation bias, satire, or even as the result of an error, mistake, or misinterpretation. Regardless of how or why it is spread, fake news is dangerous and has real-world consequences for anyone who consumes it (Shirsat 2018). 


Who is most affected by fake news online? 


While anyone can fall into the trap of believing fake news, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to the spread of mis- and disinformation. The reason for teenagers’ vulnerability to fake news are outlined below: 


Teenagers spend the most time on social media


Teenagers’ higher social media usage is one reason for this, driven by the fact that access to the internet and social media is easier than ever. In a 2022 Ofcom report in the UK, it was determined that “teenagers today are increasingly unlikely to pick up a newspaper or tune into TV News, instead preferring to keep up-to-date by scrolling through their social feeds”.


It was reported that in 2022, Instagram is the most popular news source among teenagers (29%), with TikTok and YouTube being almost as popular (28% respectively) (Ofcom, 2022). TikTok in particular has seen a dramatic increase as a news source between 2020 and 2022. According to Ofcom (2022), “TikTok’s growth is primarily driven by younger age groups, with half of its news users aged 16 to 24. Teenagers that use TikTok for news claim to get more of their news on the platform from ‘other people they follow’ (44%) than ‘news organisations’ (24%)”. 


On the other hand, TV news remains the most trusted news source among UK adults (71%), with news on social media considered the least reliable (35%) (Ofcom, 2022). While adults can also fall victim to fake news, a recent US study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (2023) has also found that 60% of 13-17 year olds agreed with more than four harmful conspiracy statements, compared to 49% of adults. The number increased to 69% of 13-17 year olds when they spent over four hours a day on a single social media platform. 


Gallup (2023) further reports that over half (51%) of U.S. teens (13-19) spend a minimum of four hours daily on social media, at an average of 4.8 hours every day on social media. So, it is clear that the amount of time teenagers spend on social media means that they are increasingly likely to consume, and fall victim to, fake news. 



Teenagers are influenced by social media acknowledgement and gratification 


Aside from their higher usage of social media, teenagers are more likely to be influenced by the acknowledgement and gratification that fake news stories can give them. 


“Social media networks have become a place where people, especially the young, value themselves based on the number of engagements they receive. Sadly, fake news does get them more interactions – it is emotionally charged and biassed, and people tend to respond more to articles that are catchy and engaging” (Beren, 2022).


The interaction received by sharing fake news, coupled with the time that young people spend on social media websites, creates an environment for fake news to be shared and spread rapidly. According to Barroso (2022), “echo chambers, in which people only consume information that matches what they already believe, increases polarisation and radicalisation”, this amplifies the impact of fake news on shaping teenagers' opinions and perspectives on societal issues, politics, and other important issues. With all of this in mind, how can we educate teenagers on the dangers of fake news and how do we teach them to think critically about the information that they consume on social media? 


How to teach teenagers to recognise and evaluate fake news?


Thinking critically about what they see online is the key to helping teenagers recognise and evaluate fake news. This comes in the form of information literacy and media literacy. 



Teaching information literacy 


We know that not everything we read online is true. Being information literate is having the “ability to define an information need, to gather data or information, to select and organise it into useful knowledge” (Hartnell College, n.d.). Information literacy consists of five repeatable steps that we can teach teenagers to allow them to evaluate the sources of information that they are exposed to online. 


  1. Identify the question: Ask teenagers to plan or research the question that they want to answer, for example, “is climate change real?”


  1. Select the appropriate sources of information: TV news and newspapers are a good place to start when gathering information, but they may not have all the information you need when you need it. Trusted online news sources contain a wealth of information within a few clicks, for example, The Guardian’s pillar page on climate crisis is a great place to get up-to-date information and news on the topic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations are also trusted bodies that can provide you with news and information about climate change. 


  1. Choose the best information: It is important to teach teens to focus on sources that have verifiable information. For a topic like climate change, this might be statistics, quotes from experts, peer-reviewed research, etc. 


  1. Make this information part of their understanding: Social media and the internet is not the only source of valuable information. Teenagers may discuss climate change in school or with family members. Using the knowledge they gain from informed adults alongside internet sources and traditional media can help them to gain a fuller understanding of the questions and topics they want to understand.


  1. Encourage teenagers to use all the information that they gather to answer their question. 


Teaching media literacy


Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and the messages they are sending (Moffat, 2018). Teaching teenagers to apply the steps of information literacy to news that they see online is helpful in encouraging them to understand and think critically about the information that they are exposed to. By developing critical thinking skills, teenagers can thoroughly evaluate the news that they consume. In order for teenagers to “develop their own opinions on the subject, it's essential for them to understand whether a piece of mass media is attempting to entertain, inform, or persuade. Knowing this helps them open their minds to different perspectives, while also keeping them alert to bias” (MasterClass, 2021). 


When applying information literacy to online news articles, it is helpful to teach teenagers to ask the following questions: 


  • Who authored this? - It could be a journalist, a politician, an influencer, or a corporation, etc., and they may have their own agenda or bias on the news that they are sharing. 

  • Why was this created? - News can be shared to inform, persuade, or even entertain. It is important to understand the intention of the article. For example, a persuasive article will usually only focus on one side of the story, and you need to understand all sides of the story to be properly informed so that you can develop your own opinion. 

  • Is it credible? - Fake news articles will lack evidence, so it is important to look for direct evidence of the claims the author is making through quotes, references, statistics, etc., (MasterClass, 2018). 


Fake news comes in many forms; articles, images, quotes, and statistics are commonly altered to spread false information. It is helpful to share examples of fake news with teenagers so that they can practise applying information and media literacy skills. For example, Snopes fact checks fake news daily. 


How to support teenagers’ critical thinking skills?


Adults have a responsibility to teach and encourage young people to develop their information and media literacy skills. This age group represents the future, and it is important to support them in being the next generation of critical thinkers. 


There are many ways to do this:


  • Encourage open communication: By fostering an open and understanding environment for communication at home, in school, and in wider society, we can encourage teenagers to openly communicate their thoughts and feelings about the news that they consume online. 


  • Encourage questioning information: There is no such thing as a dumb question. Teaching information and media literacy will help teenagers to develop the skills to question information in an easy, systematic, and repeatable way. 


  • Support questioning authority: Celebrities, influencers, politicians, etc., have authority based on their popularity and follower counts. Authority figures may unintentionally allow their perception of an event to seep into their reporting of it. While biassed news does not necessarily mean that it’s false, it’s important to encourage teenagers to question, albeit respectfully, who they are getting their information from and why.


  • Encourage empathy and compassion: Fake news is often emotionally charged and created to evoke anger and provoke the reader to react quickly. It’s important to teach teenagers to be empathetic and to read the full article before they react to it and share it. By doing this, young people are less likely to believe and share fake news.



Conclusion


Social media has caused news consumption to undergo a profound transformation, challenging the traditional norms of accuracy, fairness, and civility in journalism. Fake news, fueled by emotion, sensationalism, and shareability, has challenged the once-trusted pillars of reliable information. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to fake news through their higher consumption of social media, as well as their pursuit of acknowledgement and gratification online. Information and media literacy are crucial tools to help empower teens to question, evaluate, and understand what they consume online. By supporting teenagers in learning critical thinking skills, we can help them to become vigilant and discerning consumers of information. 








References


Barroso, L. R. (2022, October 21). 2022 Schwartz Memorial Lecture, featuring Justice Luís Roberto Barroso. Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ldFgY1GHEc&t=2s&ab_channel=UniversityofChicagoLawSchool


Beren, E. (2022, April 13). Youth, Fake News, and the Age of Misinformation Technology. Brightside Academy Ohio. https://brightsideohio.com/youth-and-fake-news/ 


Center for Countering Digital Hate. (2023, August 16). Belief in conspiracy theories higher among teenagers than adults, as majority of Americans support social media reform, new polling finds. Center for Countering Digital Hate | CCDH. https://counterhate.com/blog/belief-in-conspiracy-theories-higher-among-teenagers-than-adults-as-majority-of-americans-support-social-media-reform-new-polling-finds/ 


d’I. Treen, K. M., Williams, H. T. P., & O’Neill, S. J. (2020). Hierarchy of information, misinformation, and disinformation. In Online misinformation about climate change. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.665


Desai, S., & Oehrli, J. A. (2023, June 6). “Fake News,” Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction. Lib.umich.edu. https://guides.lib.umich.edu/fakenews


Lawson, A. (2023, May 9). Digital articles: How people read online. Orientation Marketing. https://www.orientation.agency/insights/how-people-read-online#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20good%20dwell


MasterClass . (2021, June 7). A Basic Guide to Media Literacy: How to Be Media Literate. Masterclass.com. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/a-basic-guide-to-media-literacy 


Moffat, K. (2018, November 6). The importance of media literacy. Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. https://ylai.state.gov/the-importance-of-media-literacy/#:~:text=Media%20literacy%2C%20put%20simply%2C%20is 


Ofcom. (2022, July 21). Instagram, TikTok and YouTube teenagers’ top three news sources.



Rothwell , J. (2023, October 13). Teens Spend Average of 4.8 Hours on Social Media Per Day. Gallup.com; Gallup . https://news.gallup.com/poll/512576/teens-spend-average-hours-social-media-per-day.aspx#:~:text=The%20results%20show%20that%20YouTube 


​​Shirsat, A. R. (2018). Understanding the Allure and Danger of Fake News in Social Media Environments [Doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University]. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=bgsu1530280814598288


Ward, A. F., Zheng, J. (Frank), & Broniarczyk, S. M. (2022). I share, therefore I know? Sharing online content ‐ even without reading it ‐ inflates subjective knowledge. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 33(3), 469–488. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcpy.1321 




Sarah Marnane


Sarah is a linguistic consultant with a master’s degree in applied linguistics. She combines her language expertise and teaching experience to bridge digital communication gaps. Sarah has a background in Big Tech and social media and is committed to fostering knowledge sharing and effective communication in the digital realm. 

Driven by a passion for sustainability and social justice, Sarah is dedicated to using her linguistic insight to break down barriers and facilitate a deeper understanding of these crucial issues. She believes in developing a holistic approach to understanding and nurturing the connections between technology, sustainability and human rights.

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