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An Alarming Number of Digital Natives are Falling for Misinformation

“We’ve got to do something about this.”

College students are the most internet-savvy demographic. After all, they grew up with the internet. So they know how to spot hoaxes, fake news, and misinformation better than most, right?

Not really.

A new study from Stanford University examined how well 263 college students could do with two basic online critical thinking tasks:

  1. Assess the trustworthiness of a news story
  2. Evaluate the credibility of a website

To test the first task students were given a news article from the Seattle Tribune, access to the internet to look up anything related to the story, and seven minutes. If the students had simply googled “Seattle Tribune” they would have discovered that it was a satire site, and not news. Simple. Easy. But two thirds of the digital natives fell for the satire, mistaking it for real news.

To test the second task the students were given an informational website about the minimum wage, and access to the internet. The site is run by a lobbying group and is biased, but only 7 of the 138 students who participated in this task identified this.

This study highlights the need for better critical thinking education for children and youth. The sheer amount of misinformation online is a challenge even for experienced skeptical adults, but for young people who get most of their information from online sources, the challenge is daunting. And this research shows that they do not have the skills they need to meet it.

As the study’s lead researcher Sam Wineburg said “We’ve got to do something about this.”

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