Classroom Technology

Students Struggle With Spotting Fake News, Stanford Researchers Say

By Leo Doran — November 30, 2016 3 min read
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Do you trust that the above image shows real Fukushima nuclear flowers?

If you looked at the above screen-cap from the popular image-sharing site “Imgur"—where anyone can upload images—and asked “How do we know that image hasn’t been doctored?” or “Who posted this photo?” or “How do we know it was taken near the power plant?” you would be in the minority of high school students. Most are not as discerning.

According to researchers, only 20 percent of 454 high school students asked to evaluate the screen-cap delivered a “mastery” level critique of whether the source could be trusted to depict what it purports to show.

Forty percent of students didn’t question whether the post showed reliable evidence of conditions near the plant.

According to a report issued by the Stanford History Education Group, which administered the Fukushima flower question and a battery of other “civic online reasoning” tests to students from middle schools to college ages, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” The Stanford History Education Group is a student and faculty research collaborative that focuses on how history is taught and assessed.

Interest in “fake news” has perked up in the wake of the recently concluded and bitterly negative election cycle. While falsehoods and propaganda spread for political motivations or other reasons have been employed since the earliest years of the republic, some experts are concerned that the unfettered spread of information through social media makes it all-the-more difficult for consumers to distinguish between reputable and disreputable information streams.

A Buzzfeed study found that factually incorrect “news” items actually received more Facebook engagement in the closing months of the election than items from mainstream publications.

Facebook has said that it is studying ways to limit, or somehow distinguish between articles from respected publications and those from dubious sources. Already, both Facebook and Google have announced they will no longer extend their advertising services to fake news sites.

What worries the Stanford researchers, led by director Sam Wineburg, is that many students seem unable or uninterested in making those important distinctions in their own reading and research.

“They aren’t asking the rudimentary questions,” says Wineburg.

In the study, many college students failed to effectively evaluate the pros and cons of relying on a Twitter post that cited a relatively reputable public polling agency.

“Native advertising,” an increasingly popular and controversial form or advertising in which companies pay for articles or blog posts that are written to mimic the look and tone of editorial content, was found to be particularly vexing to middle school students.

While most could distinguish between a classic advertisement and a classic news-piece on’s homepage, over 80 percent believed the native advertisement, which was tagged as “sponsored content” was a true news article.

The researchers concluded that most students should be explicitly taught what the term “sponsored content” means from the time they’re in elementary school.

Even more insidious for Wineburg is the rise of “astro-turfing,” or big-money special interests that create fake websites pretending to be grass-roots movements. To the undiscerning eye, these groups can pose as unbiased arbiters of information, while they actually try to subtly sway public opinion.

The report was issued as the Stanford group works to develop fully fleshed out curriculum items for teaching civic online reasoning. In the coming months, the report says the group will develop videos, lesson plans and teaching materials for widespread classroom use.

As for those “Fukushima flowers:" other outlets have reported on the images with a little more context. Another online post by National Geographic, raised questions about whether the flowers’ mutations are actually attributable to radiation poisoning.

But for students, whether the flowers are or aren’t actually from the power-plant’s vicinity is besides the point, according to Wineburg.

The point, he said, is that Imgur user “pleasegoogleShakerAamerpleasegoogleDavidKelly,” who self-describes as an “Ecological Libertarian-Technocrat” and an “Agnostic Determinist,” should not be blindly trusted without extensive outside verification.

Screenshot of, courtesy of Stanford History Education Group Report

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.