Russian troll farms sow disinformation. Fake news runs amok on social media. Bots impersonate real people. Real people assume false identities. How do we know what’s true? The only thing certain in our digital age is our uncertainty. This confusion impairs our ability to make wise, fact-based decisions that shape our nation’s future. What has been the educational response to this predicament? The most common approaches—“media literacy,” “news literacy,” “digital literacy,” and even that catch-all, “critical thinking"—share a commitment to teaching people how to tell truth from fiction, recognize hoaxes, and practice caution before passing along dubious content to family and friends. Are these approaches effective in helping today’s college students make thoughtful choices about what to believe?
To address this question, we surveyed 263 college sophomores, juniors, and seniors at a large state university on the East Coast. On one task, students evaluated the trustworthiness of a “news story” that came from a satirical website. On a second task, students evaluated the website of a group claiming to sponsor “nonpartisan research.” In fact the site was created by a Washington, D.C. public relations firm run by a former corporate lobbyist. For both tasks, students had a live internet connection and were instructed to “use any online resources” to make their evaluations.
Students struggled. They employed inefficient strategies that made them vulnerable to forces, whether satirical or malevolent, that threaten informed citizenship.
• Over two-thirds never identified the “news story” as satirical.
• Ninety-five percent never located the PR firm behind the supposedly “nonpartisan” website.
• Focused exclusively on the website or prompt, rarely consulting the broader web
• Trusted how a site presented itself on its About page
• Applied out-of-date and in some cases incorrect strategies (such as accepting or rejecting a site because of its top-level domain)
• Attributed undue weight to easily manipulated signals of credibility—such as an organization’s non-profit status, its links to authoritative sources, or “look”
Students Learned What We Taught Them
Alarmingly, students’ approach was consistent with guidelines that can be found on many college and university websites. Sometimes these materials are just plain wrong. Sometimes they are incomplete. Sometimes they are so inconsistent that they offer scant guidance for navigating the treacherous terrain of today’s internet. Educational institutions must do a better job helping students become discerning consumers of digital information. Our society and its democratic institutions depend on it.