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Can You Spot Fake News?

Concerns over fake news abound today, and with good reason: A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that not only did 23 percent of Americans say they'd shared fake news, but 14 percent said they'd done so even with the knowledge that it was fake. Why does fake news matter so much? Because it spreads confusion while deepening conflict between already divided groups of people. Here's a closer look at the fake news epidemic, along with how students can safeguard themselves from falling victim to fake news.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
Can You Spot Fake News?

Concerns over fake news abound today, and with good reason: A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that not only did 23 percent of Americans say they’d shared fake news, but 14 percent said they’d done so even with the knowledge that it was fake.

Why does fake news matter so much? Because it spreads confusion while deepening conflict between already divided groups of people. Here’s a closer look at the fake news epidemic, along with how students can safeguard themselves from falling victim to fake news.

The Trouble with Fake News

According to Pew, roughly 60 percent of Americans believe that fake news causes confusion about basic current events facts. Meanwhile, 32 percent say they often encounter fake news online.

Students are hardly immune to this phenomenon. In fact, one recent study into how middle school, high school and college students evaluate the information they take in via tweets, comments and articles left researchers “shocked” by the “stunning and dismaying consistency” of their wrongness, which they also described as “bleak,” “dismaying,” and a “threat to democracy.” Their overall conclusion? "Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite."

In response to the fake news problem, a USA Today article posed a unique-to-our times question: Is education the key to solving the fake news problem? Certainly, the case is strong for the role education can play in arming students against fake news. As study author Professor Sam Wineburg asked NPR’s All Things Considered, "How do [students] become prepared to make the choices about what to believe, what to forward, what to post to their friends, when they've been given no practice in school?" However, students can also proactively step up to strengthen their own defenses against fake news.

Read about studying journalism.

Fake News Tips for College Students

“Wake up, go to morning classes, go to lunch, go to afternoon classes, go to whatever sorority/fraternity/school association club meeting you might have that evening, study, maybe go out, and repeat.” This is how Odyssey describes college life, and it’s pretty much on the mark for million of students all over the world. However, the real world is waiting just off campus, and while the campus bubble offers something of a respite, it’s only a temporary one. Luckily, there are some things you can do to avoid getting lost in this “wonderful space of the in between.”

1. Educate yourself inside the classroom.

For starters, students have a huge advantage when it comes to amassing knowledge: they’re ensconced in the true bastions of learning. But you only get out of the college experience what you put into it. Rather than merely going through the motions of doing the bare minimum to get the grade you want, stop, listen and engage. That political science or economics class becomes much more interesting when you accept that what you learn there is directly applicable to the world in which you live.

2. Educate yourself outside the classroom.

One of the simplest things students can do is to understand the basic concepts of issues. Quartz’s bold summation, “These are the science concepts you need to know to understand political life in 2017,” is a great place to start. If a piece of news fails to get these right, it’s a major red flag and sign to move on.

3. Subscribe to a daily newsletter.

Social media is a great place to share stories and funny pictures, but is it really the best news of news -- particularly given the fact that many websites make money off of clicks so those with the most shocking (and often inaccurate) headlines are most valuable? Rather than using social media as your primary source of information, consider using an email news service instead. Sites like theSkimm and New York Magazine’s Fresh Intelligence both offer quick, simple and vigorously vetted information.

4. Use social media to your advantage.

While social media can definitely be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution -- if used wisely, that is. Rather than following (and trusting) anything and everything you encounter on your social media feeds, identify legitimate news sources in advance so when you do spot an interesting headline, you are already positioned to assess its validity. The New York Times and NPR are both respected news sites, while newswires like Reuters and the Associated Press are also bias-free. Local news can also be a trusted source of information.

5. Hone your critical thinking skills.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

In other words, being well-read is only a small part of the big picture. The ability to make sense of what you read using diverse intellectual tools and information is an invaluable defense against false information. If you haven’t yet taken a critical thinking class in college, you probably will soon. Now is the time to start using those skills.

Fake news is very much part of the world we live in, but that doesn’t mean it has to be part of your reality. By accepting that fake news exists and taking steps to be more vigilant about where you get your news, what you read, and how you read it, you can become your own personal bastion of informed decision-making. (For more on how not to be an informed student, check out Hans and Ola Rosling’s Ted Talk, “How not to be ignorant about the world.”)

This article was updated on 18 June 2018.

Joanna Hughes

Author

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.