Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds – NPR

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Stanford researchers assessed students from middle school to college and found they struggled to distinguish ads from articles, neutral sources from biased ones and fake accounts from real ones.

Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty Images


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Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Stanford researchers assessed students from middle school to college and found they struggled to distinguish ads from articles, neutral sources from biased ones and fake accounts from real ones.

Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty Images

If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed.

That’s one implication of a new study from Stanford researchers that evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources and described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and “[a] threat to democracy.”

As content creators and social media platforms grapple with the fake news crisis, the study highlights the other side of the equation: What it looks like when readers are duped.

The researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education have spent more than a year evaluating how well students across the country can evaluate online sources of information.

Middle school, high school and college students in 12 states were asked to evaluate the information presented in tweets, comments and articles. More than 7,800 student responses were collected.

In exercise after exercise, the researchers were “shocked” — their word, not ours — by how many students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information.

The students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, the researchers wrote, getting duped again and again. They weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles.


“Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there,” the researchers wrote. “Our work shows the opposite.”

A professional appearance and polished “About” section could easily persuade students that a site was neutral and authoritative, the study found, and young people tended to credulously accept information as presented even without supporting evidence or citations.

The research was divided by age group and used 15 different assessments. Here’s a sample of some of the results:

Most middle school students can’t tell native ads from articles.

The researchers showed hundreds of middle schoolers a Slate home page that included a traditional ad and a “native ad” — a paid story branded as “sponsored content” — as well as Slate articles.

Most students could identify the traditional ad, but more than 80 percent of them believed that the “sponsored content” article was a real news story.

“Some students even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article,” the researchers wrote, suggesting the students don’t know what “sponsored content” means.

Most high school students accept photographs as presented, without verifying them.

The researchers showed high school students a photograph of strange-looking flowers, posted on the image hosting site Imgur by a user named “pleasegoogleShakerAamerpleasegoogleDavidKelly. The caption read “Fukushima Nuclear Flowers: Not much more to say, this is what happens when flowers get nuclear birth defects.”


Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University and the lead author of the study, spoke to NPR on Tuesday.

“The photograph had no attribution. There was nothing that indicated that it was from anywhere,” he said. “We asked students, ‘Does this photograph provide proof that the kind of nuclear disaster caused these aberrations in nature?’ And we found that over 80 percent of the high school students that we gave this to had an extremely difficult time making that determination.

“They didn’t ask where it came from. They didn’t verify it. They simply accepted the picture as fact.”

Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook.


One assessment presented two posts announcing Donald Trump’s candidacy for president — one from the actual Fox News account, with a blue checkmark indicating it was verified, and one from an account that looked like Fox News.

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