Why We’re Vulnerable to Fake News

"Young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak," Stanford researchers have found.

Dear Readers,

“There is a sad thing that’s happening in journalism right now where it feels a little bit like the truth doesn’t matter so much anymore,” Edward Snowden pronounced in December during an interview with Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey.

“You get real news stories that are well-reported that go out there, and nobody in the Twitter realm retweets them…,” continued the National Security Agency whistleblower. “But if you put something crazy out there, … they will share it. It will expand. People will talk about it.”

As someone who has dedicated my career to journalism — which I think of as getting the truth out to the public about issues of importance — I am sad to report that I have often felt the same way.

In 2017, reporters and editors not only have to be concerned about digging up worthwhile news and making sure all our facts are checked before our stories go to print, but we must also spend a great deal of time promoting our online work on social media sites. This is no small task, and as time goes on, I am noticing that it takes up more and more of each workday for me and my staff.

Why? The Pew Research Center reported last May that nearly two out of three American adults — 62 percent — turn to social media, particularly Facebook, not just for entertainment and online chatter but to get their news. Eighteen percent of adults get news from social media “often.”

The problem, of course, is that Facebook is not designed to create informed citizens. It’s designed to earn ad revenue by engaging users with its social content. That’s why Snowden’s point is such an important one: Just because something is popular on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean it’s actually true or worth your time.

In a way, the statement seems so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said. But sadly, not everyone is savvy enough to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake on the internet, and young people are especially naive on the matter, according to a study published in November by the Stanford Graduate School of Education. The study surveyed 7,800 high school and college students from 12 states and asked them to identify whether an article was an advertisement or a news story, as well as to perform other tasks like explaining why a bank-sponsored article on financial planning might not be trustworthy. They failed miserably.

“Overall,” the report found, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

Dear readers, what do you think? Email me, especially if you found this story via Facebook.

Channing Joseph

“Notes From the Intersection” is a column by SF Weekly’s editor, who lives at the intersection of journalist, Facebook user, cynic, and many other identities.

cjoseph [AT] sfweekly.com | Twitter: @cgjoseph

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