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College Students Fall for Fake News, Online Trolls: Study

College students fail to discern facts from satire and propaganda, a study by Stanford University has found.

Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), headed by Professor Sam Wineburg, conducted a study on 263 college students composed of upperclassmen “from a large university on the East Coast.” The objective was to evaluate whether college students can identify if a report is factual or unbiased.

In the first task, students were given a report from a satirical website. Two-thirds of the students failed to identify that the site was unreliable and that the content was not factual.

In the second task, students were presented with a website that claims to support “nonpartisan research” when it was actually run by a Washington, DC-based corporate lobbyist. Nine out of 10 students failed to make the correct evaluation.

The study also noted that students “struggled” and used “inefficient, out-of-date strategies” which made them vulnerable to “forces that threaten an informed citizenship.” The students trusted a site’s “About” page without comparing it to other information on the web, and they also evaluated websites based on their top-level domain.

Still in the Dark

These findings could have significant implications, especially against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential elections.

“Fake news” was a national issue in the 2016 election, and Wineburg wanted to assess whether college students, who are considered “digital natives,” would be better equipped to navigate and discern the information stream.

SHEG published a report in 2016, also headed by Wineburg, which showed that students “overwhelmingly failed to demonstrate the skills necessary to distinguish credible sources from unreliable ones.”

Four years later, Wineburg had to conclude that “young people’s ability to separate fact from fiction hasn’t improved in the last four years.”

Elections and Fake News

With 2020 being an election year, citizens will be bombarded by information, both objective and subjective. If students are unable to discern, they could easily be swayed, possibly influencing their vote.

“Our democracy depends on access to reliable information,” Wineburg said. “And the internet is increasingly where we go to look for it.”

Since we could not control what is posted on the internet, Wineburg believes it is the task of educators to improve the students’ evaluation skills. Otherwise, “democracy will be the casualty,” he warned.