College Students vs. Fake News

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The internet can basically be divided into three categories: information, disinformation, and porn. That third category is self-explanatory. But those other two, information and disinformation, not so much. What defines, qualifies, and differentiates these two things has been muddied of late. The definition of fact becomes less clear all the time, and the internet is not helping. If you’re a student, this eroding definition is problematic. After all, you’re on a quest for truth, knowledge, and wisdom (and also, a quest for decent grades and credits, but stick with me). This quest of yours — to be informed, enriched, and enlightened — is threatened on all sides by untruth.

Since you’re on the internet right now, I assume you’re familiar with the term fake news. Depending on who’s using the phrase, it’s either a demonization of the free press or a description of news content that is unsubstantiated, misleading, probably untrue, and derived from biased, compromised, or otherwise untrustworthy sources.

However you define fake news, its profile is at an all-time high, as is its permeation of social media. If you’re a student or a teacher, this permeation is at odds with your mission. The imperative may never before have been so great to ensure that we as students and educators can recognize bias, detect accuracy, decipher fact from fiction, and ultimately, help stifle the spread of fake news.

The Sponsored Content Generation

Young learners may be remarkably fluent in computer, mobile, and web technology, but a Stanford University study released in November 2016 revealed Generation Z’s startling absence of media literacy. The study of more than 7,804 students from middle school through college found that 82% of middle school respondents were unable to distinguish between a real news story and an ad labeled “sponsored content.”

The Stanford study also showed that more than two out of three middle school respondents saw no reason to distrust an article about financial planning written by a bank executive; and that four of ten high school students were inclined to believe, without any further questions, that an uncredited, unsourced, out-of-context photo of deformed daisies provided strong evidence of toxic fallout from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

The Stanford researchers used strong words to describe their findings. They were “shocked,” and identified the results as “bleak,” calling them a “threat to democracy.”

That … doesn’t sound so great.

But how much time do kids really spend online? According to The Wall Street Journal, by middle school, the average kid spends roughly 7.5 out-of-school hours on the internet.

Ouch. OK. So for most of the hours that the average American teen spends both awake and outside of school, he or she floats unwittingly through a sphere of political propaganda, tabloid gossip, and celebrity death hoaxes, largely without the tools to distinguish a medical journal from a Cialis ad.

The Academic Burden

Of course, for those of us in academia, the quest to discern fact from fiction is an eternal one, a prerogative that far predates the recent rise of fake news. Identifying credible sources and testing the validity of information are critical academic skills. This is true separate from the fact that the internet bombards you with 24/7 nonsense.

As a student, you are a researcher, which means you’re always digging for leads, foraging for data, borrowing judiciously from great thinkers, writers, world leaders, and journalists to formulate your own understanding of a subject. That understanding amounts to little if you can’t tell who’s giving it to you straight and who’s shoveling fertilizer into your feed.

The Stanford study shows that educators and students have their work cut out for them. Your ability to succeed as a student, and as a functional adult, will depend on your discretion and your ability to balance truth and confidence with a healthy skepticism. The more knowledge and awareness you bring to your consumption of information and news, the more meaningful that consumption will be.

And perhaps more importantly, this knowledge and awareness will protect you from becoming an unwitting mark, a vessel for untruth targeted by those who wish to spread it. Though as a cautionary reality, The Wall Street Journal reports that by age 18, young adults get 88% of their news from Facebook and other social media outlets.

Not coincidentally, as Russian hackers undertook efforts to impact America’s 2016 presidential election, they focused their efforts on Facebook. It was here, say intelligence sources, that hackers were most successful in proliferating disinformation designed to spark tension during an exceptionally rancorous election season. Intelligence sources revealed, in late 2017, that as many as 126 million Americans viewed Russian-authored ads and memes spanning ideologies on both the Right and the Left, apparently created to stoke antagonism over America’s cultural rifts and to poison the well of legitimate, rational discussion.

These images, ads, and ideas coalesced to create a din of honest-to-goodness fake news, which consequently became background noise for the loudest election cycle in history. We may never know how many Americans were moved to make electoral decisions based on a cycle of intentional disinformation. But at the very least, we do know it had a profound impact on political discourse in America. We now no longer disagree on the philosophy of things but on the very facts underlying those philosophies. The spread of fake news gives foundation to versions of events that, while probably untrue, match up with desired narratives, be they political, historical, or ideological.

The burden is on educators and students to command facts effectively. If harmony between two divergent narratives isn’t possible, let academic truth at least be a line of defense against the spread of falsehood.

Training Media Literacy

As an article in The Atlantic points out, education is not about teaching facts but about teaching the ability to find and analyze them. The absence of these skills has allowed the proliferation of fake news. The Atlantic explains, “Facts (or the lack thereof) mean very little to people caught up in storylines. The best way to teach true understanding is not by teaching students facts (although that is still a valuable lesson); it is to teach them to analyze, as one does with elements of narrative.”

Analysis is an essential skill because it teaches us not simply to identify fact, but to scrutinize sources of information, to consider the likelihood of potential biases, to look more closely for gaps in the information provided, to approach all news with a sense of how agenda shapes message. Even legitimate news sources come with their own editorial biases. This doesn’t make them inherently dishonest. Rather, as the observer, you must own your responsibility to account for these biases in everything you read or hear.

Educators are increasingly working to teach these nuances to students at the college level. As Sam Wineberg, lead author of the Stanford study points out, “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking. And we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”

But Russian interference during the 2016 election, and its inextricable connection to fake news, revealed something startling: the power of fake news to influence real events and produce real outcomes, even if the “facts” driving this news aren’t real at all.

This places a large burden on colleges and students alike to become a joint bulwark against disinformation. Some schools are taking this challenge seriously, using the fake news epidemic as a real-world prompt for media literacy instruction. Howard Schneider, executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, explained that “this election has set off alarm bells.”

Many colleges have been using largely the same strategy for teaching citations and information-vetting since the earliest days of web integration. Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group, points out that some college resources on establishing the credibility of web material date back to 1999. For an idea of how much has changed since then, cell phones didn’t have cameras, Google was a startup, and Mark Zuckerberg was just starting high school. We’ve got some catching up to do.

Spread Real News

The best way to help in the fight against fake news is to think before you link. Note the difference between advertisement and information, between activism and journalism, and between propaganda and proper citations. When you become media literate, you become more than a guardian against fake news. You become an ally of a fair and free press.

And if you want to be more than an ally to the press, you could become a member of the real news corps yourself.

Check out The 10 Best Online Bachelor’s in Journalism Programs or The 5 Best Online Master’s in Journalism Programs and get on the front lines in the fight against fake news!

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