Fake news has become more ubiquitous in recent years, and there’s growing evidence that children struggle to distinguish between authentic, online news reporting and fiction.
But new research from the Reboot Foundation suggests that it’s possible to cultivate students’ ability to spot fake news.
Researchers at the foundation found that interventions as simple as reading a short article or watching a three-and-a-half-minute long educational video on how to be on the lookout for fake news can make an immediate difference in test subjects’ abilities to pick it out.
“By reframing, reminding, giving tools to children to better spot fake news, there is a ‘before’ and ‘after,’” Helen Bouygues, founder and president of the Reboot Foundation, said in an interview. “It actually has an impact.”
The findings are a hopeful glimmer in a generally grim landscape of data.
A report from the Stanford Higher Education Group last November found that of about 3,500 9-12th graders sampled, two-thirds had only a “beginning” level ability to judge information for accuracy, relevance and quality.
And according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, over a third of middle schoolers say they “rarely” or “never” learn how to judge the reliability of sources.
There are reasons why children are more vulnerable to fake news and misinformation online. One is that they’re more likely to get a majority of news and information online, where fake news proliferates, than older generations are.
And they’re more susceptible to the kinds of emotional appeals that fake news relies on because their emotional management is less developed, Bouygues said. (She noted that deficiencies in emotional management are not limited to children).
Evaluating the Author, and the Message
Although research shows that older people share fake news on Facebook more often, she cautioned that she would not interpret that as evidence that younger people are any better at telling the difference between authentic and fictitious stories.
The Reboot Foundation’s findings say that there are ways to make students savvier consumers of information. In the study, some subjects were given an article with advice on how to spot fake news, which recommended that for any information source, they should ask who the author is, what the message is, and why it was created.
Other subjects watched a short video providing tips on how to spot fake news, like “read beyond the headline,” “check the date” and “check your biases.”
As part of the Reboot Foundation study, over 2,000 subjects on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform read the article or watched the video, and were then tasked with distinguishing between real and fake news amid articles with headlines like “Government Releases the Cure for Cancer, but with the Largest Price Tag of Any Drug in History” (fake) and “Conservative Activist Punched at UC Berkeley” (real). The results showed a measurable increase in the students’ ability to weed out fake news.
The results were not positive across the board, however. The experiment also had participants play a game, NewsFeed Defender, where they simulated the role of curating a newsfeed and performed different actions to make sure they only shared authentic news articles.
According to Bouygues, participants who played the game did not become measurably better and spotting fake news, likely because they were preoccupied with the mechanics of the game rather than the message it was trying to teach.
Media literacy education consultant Frank Baker said the results were encouraging, but noted that American children’s limitations in spotting fake news are part of broader shortcomings in media literacy.
Most teachers are probably not aware of the study’s findings, he said, and even if the results were adapted into new curricula made available to schools, it could take years before they were widely adopted.
The challenge in improving American media literacy is “not creating the material, it’s more [about] investing the time to provide that education to children,” Bouygues agreed
Still, the report demonstrated the “positive dimension” to media literacy education, she said: Even a short intervention can make an immediate difference.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.