News

In the age of 'fake news,' Stanford study finds high schoolers unskilled at assessing online information

'Our results are sobering': Researchers call for greater investment in digital literacy curriculum

To assess just how well teens are able to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of online information, Stanford University researchers showed more than 3,000 high school students across the country a grainy Facebook video clip of poll workers stuffing ballots into bins, with captions stating that the videos depict Democratic 2016 primary elections in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Students were asked to decide whether the video, accompanied by a post that read "Have you ever noticed that the ONLY people caught committing voter fraud are Democrats?," was "strong evidence" of voter fraud during the 2016 Democratic primaries.

Over half of the students thought that it was — despite the fact that the video showed voter fraud in Russia, not in the United States. Among all of the students, only three were able to find the original source of the video.

Researchers with the Stanford History Education Group, an effort housed at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, called the results of their study "troubling": The inability of students to gauge the credibility and accuracy of online information poses a serious threat to "the vitality of American democracy."

"The 2020 presidential election is just a year away, and many current high school students will be first-time voters. Our findings show that they are unprepared to assess the information they encounter," Professor Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group, who co-authored the report with the group's director, Joel Breakstone, and Director of Assessment Mark Smith, said in a press release.

The Stanford History Education Group study, conducted with Texas education research group Gibson Consulting, was a follow-up to 2016 research, conducted in the wake of that year's presidential election and the rise of fake news. The earlier research found that students from middle school to college "struggled to perform even the most basic evaluations of digital material," confusing online ads with news stories and trusting a photo posted anonymously on social media.

For the new study, 3,446 high school students from 16 districts across 14 states, including California, evaluated videos, websites, articles and social media claims between June 2018 and May 2019. They were asked to complete six tasks, and the majority of students struggled with all of them, according to the results.

In one task, students were to determine whether a website is a reliable source of information about global warming. They were reminded that they were allowed to search online to answer that question. The few students who performed well on the task searched online to find out that the website is run by the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, a nonprofit organization funded by fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, that holds a skeptical view of climate change.

More than 96% of students surveyed failed to consider that ties to the fossil fuel industry might affect the credibility of the website, the report states.

In all of the study tasks, researchers were looking for students who used "lateral reading" — leaving websites to research their validity elsewhere — rather than reading vertically, looking only at the details of a page such as the domain type and the "about" page, which are "easy to manipulate," the report states.

The researchers purposely sought out a diverse student sample that would match the demographics of American high school students and allow for an analysis of racial, ethnic, regional and demographic differences. They found that students in urban districts outperformed peers from suburban and rural districts. Students who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander also scored better than their peers, as did students with mothers with higher levels of education. Students who reported receiving free and reduced lunch, marking lower income levels, and those whose families spoke a language other than English at home, did worse than their peers.

"Our findings suggest that, when it comes to evaluating the quality of digital sources, those most affected are students who have been underserved by our nation's schools," the report states. "Students' socioeconomic status and their ethnicity/race were significant predictors of performance. Equitable access to civic life depends on providing these students with the support they need to develop the skills of digital evaluation."

The vast majority of students, however, would benefit from more nuanced digital literacy instruction, the study authors wrote. The researchers were critical of the traditional "checklist approach," which provides students with long lists of questions that focus on a single website, and advocate instead for teaching how to navigate the broader internet to judge the trustworthiness of online information.

"Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health. A polluted information supply imperils our nation's civic health," the researchers wrote. "We need high-quality digital literacy curricula, validated by rigorous research, to guarantee the vitality of American democracy."

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Comments

23 people like this
Posted by student
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 29, 2019 at 8:12 am

Does daily lying by the President count as fake news or real news about intentionally misleading the American people?


12 people like this
Posted by R. Ortiz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 29, 2019 at 8:40 am

Not surprising. Their overall short attention span + a general lack of attention to detail accounts for much of this. A minimal sense of history is also a factor.

It started with the Millennial generation & has now crossed over into Generation Z.

An overdependence on technology (i.e. smartphones) for entertainment & information + a general sense of indifference towards major matters of consequence is no big surprise as this has been going on for the past 10-15 years or so.

Professional sports (MLB, NBA, NFL et al) has even given way to this generational short-attention span with higher scoring driven sabermetrics & entertainment presentations.


5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2019 at 9:03 am

A lot of the problem is down to the abundance of sources as well as the speed in which the news has to get out there.

When I was young, it was the 30 minute evening news or perhaps radio news headlines that told us what had happened that day and anything deeper was in the newspapers next day or weekend analysis on tv. The news media had time to develop how it would present the story and reflect its impact. Very rarely did breaking news stop the everyday flow of what was happening in our lives. With the advent of 24 news stations and the need for them to fill every moment with "in depth coverage", came the expectation that we could turn on the news and get up to the minute news whenever we wanted.

As a result, this became a race to be fastest with the news, the most critical, the most scandalous, the most damaging rather than the most fair. As each media outlet competed for advertising, readership and ratings were the driving force behind how the news was collated and presented. Gone were the times of investigative reporting and professional acumen. They were replaced with hype, spin and greed. It became fashionable to blame rather than to understand, to be angry rather than opine, to rant rather than to be concise, to interrupt programming for live reports and have helicopters flying over cop chases.

Can we be surprised that nowadays the youth are unable to discern what is fake and what is not, what is hype, what is rare and unusual, or what is beyond the inflammatory headlines?


12 people like this
Posted by Ideas
a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2019 at 12:41 pm

This is not limited to high school students - liberal and conservative adults of all ages fall for fake news based on the the postings on FB and emails I've been forwarded from friends and family across the spectrum. Many people buy into the news that resonates with their echo-chamber and jump on the bandwagon.


14 people like this
Posted by carlt
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 29, 2019 at 12:58 pm

carlt is a registered user.

Just guessing but I think if you did the same study with adults you'd get similar results as those in the teenage sample in the article. Why claim this is a teenage problem? The amount of news we receive on a daily basis is overwhelming to start with.


8 people like this
Posted by Don't be a sucker
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2019 at 2:20 pm

OK, just as a test, how many of you considered that this article might actually be the experiment? Was there no interview of 3000 teenagers? Was this simply a press announcement put out to gauge how many news organizations and readers fell for it because, you know, "those darn kids"?

The study is on the Stanford History Education website, but it isn't mentioned on the Gibson Consulting site. I haven't found a journal article yet, but I'll look more. This probably is a legit study, but it is worth thinking about first.

So before everybody jumps all over me, I will confess to contributing to a related problem by making this post. That problem is the attack on experts. Some voices are attempting to disrupt society's faith in experts (like the researchers at Stanford).

My plea is this: Everybody, teens and adults, please keep your eyes and minds open. Keep thinking.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 29, 2019 at 2:55 pm

So we’re supposed to be alarmed that kids aren’t skeptical enough about a website supported by an organization that is, allegedly, too skeptical.

Sounds like there’s an implicit bias in this study.


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 29, 2019 at 4:13 pm

@Don't be a sucker, you beat me to it. Had to check for April Fools Day.
I, too, wondered whether this article could be an ultimate irony.
I figured by now everyone would be a skeptic and watchful of agendas.


Like this comment
Posted by Casey Jones
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2019 at 5:02 pm

[Post removed.]


24 people like this
Posted by @Casey Jones
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 29, 2019 at 5:19 pm

Don't tell me, sport -- didn't read the Mueller report, right?

Stay away from Fox "News" and right-of-right AM talk radio, it's bad for your brain.


Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2019 at 5:20 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I wonder if the “Mark Smith” mentioned in this article is the Mark Smith who once appeared naked in the Gunn High Of Palo Alto The Oracle, while I was editor?


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 8:31 am

Further to my post above about the history and evolution of news media it is not only young people who are suffering.

As a child we had the evening news and my Dad would watch it religiously, meaning watching was essential to him and he must not be interrupted. He always read the newspaper for hours, or at least that is how it seemed to me. His opinions on what was happening were based more on the facts rather than the opinions of talking heads. News headlines were in the first 30 seconds with details to follow - without teasers or ambiguity.

Now headlines seem to convey almost nothing. News articles need to be read in entirety because the headlines are often inflammatory or misleading, or worse still full of puns for no reason other than to make the news "entertaining". The Weekly is particularly guilty of this.

I used to like CNNs headline news channel. The slogan "around the world in 30 minutes" worked well. The world and national headlines given at the top of the hour or 30 minutes past the hour, then world news, national news with sports headlines and weather in the last 7 minutes or so, then it started all over again. Now we can get a whole hour of "news" which is a mish mash of world, national and local all put together in a hodge podge of editing that is designed to keep you watching and if you blink you might miss something important or relevant that was the reason for watching in the first place.

As an example, the recent PG&E power outages seemed to take up so much of the news broadcasts with opinions from passers by and local business owners. We did not need to get all those interviews. What we needed were detailed maps and details of how long with perhaps more information about whether airports, hospitals, etc. were able to function in case we needed them. Instead it seemed that the outages were a bonanza for the local media.

From all this presented to us, it was evident to me from talking to others that facts were clouded over by innuendo. It was easy to think that the areas affected were all over the Bay Area, or northern California, or indeed the whole state. When I told family and friends outside California that we had the power on the whole time, I got responses of disbelief, incredulity or even "you can't have, I heard that the whole of ____" was without power because that's what the news said.

No wonder then that it is hard to get a real sense of what is going on when even those power outages were misleadingly reported.


15 people like this
Posted by Democratic Homeostasis
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:06 am

Watch the documentary The Great Hack (Netflix).

The last time I tried to share some verifiable facts (from weighty scientific nonpartisan sources) to try to get through to a parent immersed in the cult of ideological political-figure-worship, I received a counter with a link to a website with some innocuous title like "students (something or others)". My parent said that maybe that site wasn't a standard source but there were tons of links showing the same thing.

It didn't even take any digging to discover the site was a (hmmm) non-profit admitting to being dedicated to furthering rightwing ideology by taking news stories and massaging them for rightwing spin. Of the numerous links my parent thought were substantiation, not a single one was a reliable source, but rather, links resulting from the abovementioned massaged news.

Stuff like that, which has truth in it but no conscientious analysis is just as dangerous from traditional media. For example, a relative in a red state accosted me with the idea that people are leaving CA in droves (true). His conclusion was this must be because of the high taxes and (therefore) terrible business environment, and that therefore the CA economy was in terrible shape.

The whole picture is that CA was at the time going from the 6th to the 5th largest economy in the world (under a Democratic supermajority in the state capitol) while going from debt to surplus during the last recession and putting aside a rainy day fund, CA had and has a net influx of people, and that we are facing some really critical problems as a result -- that CA cities would probably benefit at this point from a net outflux of people and jobs, whether instate or out. (But the outflux of ordinary people he was seizing on is probably not a net benefit as currently the outflux represents an outflux of diversity from our cities, as "clustering" tech economies entrench. I'm not sure the relative would appreciate that nuanced analysis.)

The simplistic processes in even mainstream journalism that are supposed to create balance have been manipulated for a long time and are now, because our political system hasn't been a healthy competition for over 40 years. One side has been focused on trying to destroy the democratic process permanently and replace it with plutocracy -- they even named it, "permanent Republican majority" and drowning our government of by and for the people in a bathtub. It all began with Big Lies (Watergate, and the Trojan Horse of tricke-down economics that Reagan's own budget director admitted was just a front for cutting top tax rates), and not surprisingly, has needed bigger and bigger lies and liars to keep it going. The systematic weakening of our democratic processes and government by our own rightwing-plutocrat-wannabe's is what has made us vulnerable to the Russians and to the extreme manipulations of media.

But that's my analysis of the last 40 or so years -- it's surprising just how little any of even recent past is available for context in the news. Look at Republican histrionic claims about anytime Democrats stand up to them -- it's like the relentless playground bully finally gets someone standing up against them, and the bully screams that they're being bullied as another way to crush their victim. (And Democrats roll over for it, believing someday the truth will out and set them free.) But I remember how relentlessly Bill Clinton was hounded by ultrarightwing partisans, and can see the difference. I just don't understand why the news cycle never counters the histrionic partisan claims with actual history for context.

Anyway, the point is, it just seems like a little too late to be talking about creating savvier online purveyors when the fundamental problem of a whole political party trying relentlessly to destroy our democratic form of government -- even openly admitting it all this time ("permanent Republican majority") -- gets ignored as a factor in the interest of "balance".


5 people like this
Posted by Democratic Homeostasis
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:17 am

The other problem with this study as reported, is that they may have already chosen a biased population of students who have already been conditioned (per my above post) to believing certain kinds of information (Texas, rightwing talking points). There is enough evidence that the fake news phenomenon of 2016 was not a balanced phenomenon and more a problem on the right -- and more problematically, this fact gets ignored because the problem does happen on both sides, just not equally -- that this should have been factored into the study. You can't generalize to all teens if you are just studying those who have been culturally immersed/overtly conditioned to believing the lies used in the study.


8 people like this
Posted by R. Ortiz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:30 am

Another consideration that applies to both adult & youth viewers...

CNN & Fox News do more 'opinionizing' than actual reportage & their panels of so-called 'experts' are often laughable and/or extremely biased.

In the old days when people actually read newspapers on a regular basis, these kinds of inputs for reserved for the editorial page.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2019 at 6:41 pm

Posted by Don't be a sucker, a resident of Midtown

>> OK, just as a test, how many of you considered that this article might actually be the experiment?

They used to teach us, "Don't believe everything you read in the Sunday newspapers!"

Of course, we didn't realize that the worst was yet to come. At least the NY Times still has a print version so that people can at least analyze the errors. Try that on Youtube-based news.


5 people like this
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of another community
on Dec 1, 2019 at 2:24 am

Most Palo Altans
a) believe anthropogenic global warming to be real and impactful; and
b) think Democratic politicians are the only ones who should be in power
c) are certain that recycling is good and makes up for profligate consumption

= proof PA adults can't discern between fake and real news.


Like this comment
Posted by deniers
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 1, 2019 at 3:46 am

Most of the scientific community accept the factual basis that:

a) anthropogenic global warming to be real and impactful


4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 1, 2019 at 6:23 am

a) ... and a great source of funding.


1 person likes this
Posted by R. Ortiz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 1, 2019 at 7:55 am

> Most Palo Altans
a) believe anthropogenic global warming to be real and impactful; and

^^^ A reality but too late to turn back now unless global human population decreases dramatically...war, incurable pandemics & infant mortality can counter this ongoing issue.

Obesity, upwardly-mobile lifestyle choices & an over-reliance on modern-day conveniences also contributes to this problem.

Time to cut back and get real. This will also reduce the demand for overseas manufacturing from 3rd world countries and CHINA.

b) think Democratic politicians are the only ones who should be in power

^^^ Think PA City Hall & its band of well-intentioned 'do-gooders'.

c) are certain that recycling is good and makes up for profligate consumption

^^^ Like flushing the toilet more often to accommodate overeating/gluttony.

= proof PA adults can't discern between fake and real news.

^^^ Palo Alto is not alone in this mindset. Think Marin County & San Francisco as well...the only difference is that San Francisco & Palo Alto cannot solve their social & fiscal problems.


1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 1, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Some people shop themselves as “experts” and are brought in as filler guests on cable tv “news” and radio shows, with little knowledge or credibility. A weekend problem, naive bookers book and pay them. Actually funny, sometimes.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Posted by Chris Zaharias, a resident of another community

>> a) believe anthropogenic global warming to be real and impactful; and

Just so I understand where you are coming from, what scientific articles in which journals are you referencing? You know, journals, where scientists publish stuff that other scientists read. e.g. Web Link



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