Information Literacy in an Era of “Fake News”


Children and youth today have a world of information at their fingertips.  Know what is real or fake is an important skills for young people to have.  Author Erin Walsh looks at the research and resources which can be used to help teach our youth how to evaluate the information they find online.  

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  • Student-Teacher Relations
  • Staff Development

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Children and youth today have a world of information at their fingertips. They can access libraries with the click of a button, swipe to view thousands of books, and scroll through newspapers from across the globe. While many young people may be physically separated by geography and/or socially separated by race or income, the Internet has been heralded as a democratizing force, allowing young people universal access to information and to ideas different from their own.

Yet in the wake of the presidential election, many are questioning these basic assumptions about the Internet, information, and democracy. Is the Internet an echo chamber or a bridge builder? Does access to information facilitate democratic conversation or drive us further apart? Does social media accelerate the distribution of credible knowledge or peddle "fake news" to drive revenues or promote partisan agendas? These broad questions about the relationship between information, technology, and democracy are important ones. For those working directly with youth, perhaps the most relevant question is more simply, “How do we help young people evaluate information they find online?”

Accelerating trends among youth make this question an urgent priority:

  • News is curated. The news and information that young people consume is increasingly curated by digital intermediaries like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms.1
  • News is social. News and information are more likely to be consumed through integrated online experiences that consist of socializing, entertainment, and information seeking alike. News is woven into young people's online experience, whether they are consciously consuming it or not.
  • News is not neutral. Many news and information sites have become increasingly partisan and polarized, a trend that is exacerbated by homophilous online networks where political misinformation can spread very quickly because it just “feels right.”2

These trends actually help debunk the myth that young people belong to a "newsless" generation. At least 85% of young people today report that keeping up with the news is at least somewhat important to them. 3 Young people today are exposed to more news about the world and about their local communities than previous generations. They are hungry for information and seek it out in the meaningful context of relationships and social action that social media provides.

Yet while youth are increasingly exposed to news and hungry to be informed, too many aren't as well equipped to evaluate the content they encounter online. A recent Stanford University Study took a look at what they call "civic online reasoning," or the ability to judge the credibility of information online. For example, the researchers asked students to distinguish between articles and advertisements, decide if a website could be trusted, research claims on controversial topics, and evaluate the relative strength of evidence that two Facebook users present in an online exchange, among other activities. Across the board, their findings are cause for alarm. For example, over 80% of the middle school students who participated in the study couldn't distinguish between sponsored content and a real news story online. Many students also used the presence of an attached photo rather than a reliable source to determine the validity of a newsy tweet. The researchers did not mince words when summing up their findings. "Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak." 4

Before we go blaming the next generation for being lazy fact checkers, it is important to acknowledge the information challenges that we all face. As traditional news gatekeepers become less powerful and the circulation of information explodes, exposure to misinformation or biased information is more common and more difficult to detect. 5 Despite these discouraging trends, there are some bright spots that shine a light on a path forward. The Stanford University Study recommends that we integrate civic online reasoning into classroom curricula at an early age and that we share the link between digital literacy and citizenship with educators and policy makers so that we can begin to address the problem on a systems level. 6 There is reason to believe that interventions within education can make a difference. A pair of researchers recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of youth ages 15 to 27 to uncover the factors that shape how well youth evaluate the accuracy of truth claims online. They found that while political knowledge did not necessarily improve accuracy, media literacy education did.7 The study did not ask about particular media literacy curricula, but rather whether or not youth had discussed core media literacy concepts at school. For example, respondents were asked how often they had discussed the importance of evaluating evidence that backs up people’s opinions and how to tell if the online information is trustworthy. Among those who reported the most media literacy experiences, there was a large and statistically significant difference in their ability to assess the accuracy of posts.

Learning how to discern credible sources from questionable ones and having the tools to understand bias, spin, and framing are critical 21st century skills. Librarians and media specialists have long taken on the role of nurturing critical media literacy at school (a broad umbrella that includes visual literacy, news literacy, information literacy, and digital citizenship) but youth serving professionals and caregivers would be wise to partner with them and reinforce this learning outside of class as well.

Check out the following resources to start engaging youth in media literacy today:

  1. Project Look Sharp’s lesson plans, resources, training and support for media literacy integration in the classroom: http://www.projectlooksharp.org/
  2. Reading Like a Historian from the Stanford History Education Group: https://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh
  • The News Literacy Project has both in class and out of class activities, learning modules, and professional development related specifically to consuming news media: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/
  • Want to make systems-level change? In addition to classroom materials and materials for parents, you can work with Media Literacy Now to put media literacy on the public policy agenda in your state: http://medialiteracynow.org/

Resources & Notes:

  1. Media Insight Project (2015). How Millennials Get News: Inside the Habits of America’s First Digital Generation. Access at: https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/millennials-news/
  2. Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106–131.
  3. Media Insight Project. Op Cit.
  4. Stanford History Education Group (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.
  5. Rojecki, A., & Meraz, S. (2016). Rumors and factitious informational blends: The role of the web in speculative politics. New Media & Society, 18(1), 25–43
  6. Stanford History Education Group. Op Cit.
  7. Bowyer, B. & Kahne, J. (2017). Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation. American Educational Research Journal. 54(1). pp. 3–34.

Writer: Erin Walsh is a national speaker on issues related to brain development, parenting, and the impact of media and technology on child health and development. She is a speaker for Bolster Collaborative and guest author for the Practice Brief Series. She is also one of the founders of Mind Positive Parenting, where she translates the latest discoveries in brain science into practical advice and strategies for parents and youth-serving professionals.

This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.



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