They have never known a world that is not instantly connected – through email, Facebook, Instagram and other social media.
As President Donald Trump decries what he calls “fake news” and as Congress investigates how Russia might have manipulated social media during the 2016 presidential election, the young members of the millennial generation also are having a tough time determining what is factual and what is not on social media.
For them, the concerns are not abstract. Joshua Nicholson, 15, a student in Bryan Christopher’s journalism class at Riverside High School, has seen how rumors fueled by a false news post can cause conflict among students. “As far as my friends ... it does concern me, because I want them to have a safe environment,” Nicholson said. “I don’t want them to be caught in these situations where they are caught between what is real and what is fake,” he said.
Joshua said he tries to get news from traditional news outlets rather than social media.
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Joe Laird, 17, another student of Christopher’s, finds it difficult to decide what is authentic and what is not. Websites that skew facts depending on their political viewpoint and post on social media add to the problem, Laird said. Often, he cannot determine if what his friends are saying about the news is factual or not.
“There are definitely divisions between liberals and conservatives in our school,” Joe said. “I have friends on both sides of it.”
Estefany Fuentes-Gutierrez, 17, uses Twitter frequently and said she also has difficulty determining whether the news she receives is real or fake.
Many of high school students’ peers nationally share their concerns. Forty-nine percent of teens said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about mistakenly spreading fake news on the Internet, according to the second annual survey “Keeping Up With Generation APP.” The National Cyber Security Alliance and the Microsoft corporation conducted the survey, interviewing 813 teens ages 13-17 and 809 parents of teens ages 13-17 in September about a wide array of online security issues.
Of the teenagers interviewed, 30 percent said they wanted more information about spotting fake news.
Parents also echoed their concerns, with 63 percent saying they were concerned about their teenagers spreading false information from the internet, and 20 percent saying they want to learn more about identifying fake news.
More critical thinking needed
Students “are pretty good at recognizing unapologetically false stories like The Onion,” a satirical news site, Christopher said. For students, the difficulty comes from sites pushing an agenda but masquerading as news organizations, he said.
The generations designated “X” and “Y” know how to use social media, said W. Russell Robinson, assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at N.C. Central University. He cites younger people’s pioneering the use of social media in Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns as an example of their savvy. “The hard part we’re dealing with ... is the millennials’ lack the ability to be critical of what they consume,” Robinson said.
“It’s up to us as parents and educators not to tell them what to think, but to give them something else to think about [so] they can form the narrative in their own mind,” Robinson said.
Richardson said he is “optimistic” about news platforms like Huffington Post, AJ Plus and Newsy, which are quick, to the point, and are taking advantage of the needs of younger readers. If students will try to consult these sources “it gives me hope that they can make those judgments [about real or fake news] on their own,” he said.
Caroline Peterson, teen services manager at Southwest Regional Library in Durham, is planning to teach a class for teenagers in how to spot fake news.
She offers some pointers she has given in past sessions. Among them: “Keep your emotions in check,” and check the source of the information, she said. “If it’s not from [a news source], check some other sources,” Peterson said. She also cautions against getting news from sites that are biased, and not to depend on social media exclusively for news.
Christopher encourages his students to look at a news site that may have a different political view from their own. He encourages them to ask “do they use the same quotes, do they cite the same sentences?” he said. Having students produce a news story also helps them understand the process, and builds skills they can apply to online news sources. “I think one of the best ways to help navigate it would be to require more students to take a journalism course,” Christopher said.
Despite the pitfalls of hoaxes and deliberate misinformation, social media is still a benefit, Laird said. “Even though [social media] causes problems with bullying and fake news, it does help with communication among people,” he said.
And when a social post is hurtful, Nicholson said he tries to use it to promote civil discussion. “When it comes down to me, I try to embrace it,” Nicholson said. “If we both bicker back and forth about our flaws, we’re never going to get anywhere.”