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Students struggle to identify fake news — just like adults

This segment originally aired Nov. 28, 2016, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

A new study from Stanford University suggests that much like adults, students have a hard time spotting fake news and identifying “real” news articles.

Led by Stanford professor Sam Wineburg, founder of the school’s History of Education Group, the study analyzed the responses of middle school, high school, and college students to specific exercises administered either online or on-site, from January 2015 to June 2016. Respondents included 7,804 students across 12 states, from “under-resourced” schools in Los Angeles to “well-resourced” schools in the Minneapolis suburbs.


The results aren’t encouraging:

— Almost 70 percent of middle school students in the study struggled to identify “sponsored content” posts, and less than 20 percent demonstrated “mastery.”

— More than 80 percent of the middle schoolers identified a native advertisement tagged with the words “sponsored content” as a “real news” story, although three-quarters of the students were able to spot traditional ads.

— When shown a fake Fox News Facebook post and a genuine one, more than 30 percent of high school students said that the fake one was real, partly because a Donald Trump tweet was used in the image.

“Many [middle school] students judge an argument based on its alignment with their own views rather than on the strength of the evidence it presents,” the study’s authors wrote.

Particularly concerning about the results is that much of the content students misidentified followed government rules and industry practices. For example, the Federal Trade Commission’s rules governing native ads — ads that mirror the appearance of non-ad content around them — would likely permit ads that students would misidentify as non-advertising content, according to the study. While the FTC requires ads to be labeled, those labels can be fairly subtle.

To make matters more confusing, “sponsored content” — an article that might normally appear on a site but also influences the reader’s perception of the company or person sponsoring it — are only one type of native advertisement. Other kinds, although it’s unclear if the study differentiated among them, include branded video not clearly delineated as a commercial or “branded journalism,” a deceptive term for acts of marketing branded as journalism. A notable example is when The Guardian collaborated with Amazon for a “Serial”-like show to promote an Amazon TV show.

After weeks of sustained criticism about how fake news on Facebook might have affected the presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the social network will try to tackle the problem. It’s unclear how much he’ll be able to do, though, given that much of the fake news on Facebook comes from places considered “real news” sites.

Though educators don’t have a lot of tools in their arsenal against how much truth digital publishers decide to tell — or what kind of ads they want to run — there’s a small ray of light. A free historical literacy curriculum for social studies students, available from Stanford, has been downloaded 3.5 million times, according to Professor Wineburg.