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Students Falling for Fake News Need a Serving of Media Savvy

Remember when they used to be called urban legends?

You’d hear a story, from somewhere—nobody ever seemed to know exactly where—about something that sounded frightening, or bizarre, but also contained enough detail to be, well . . . plausible. Not a Weekly World News–style absurdity about space aliens, but something closer to normal: a strange crime committed long ago in your town; an alert about a popular product or food item that is more harmful than any of the “powers that be” are willing to admit; a celebrity you’ve heard of who is keeping their fatal illness a secret.

Nowadays you can easily spread a story like this on the internet, illustrated with a photograph or set in a typeface that makes it look like it comes from a reliable source. Yes, a lot of them are still about crimes or dangers or hushed-up diseases, but many more of them these days are about politics. But that doesn’t make them any less urban legends.

Information is power—but misinformation can be dangerous. In today’s over-hyped social media culture, it takes a lot of effort to tell real news from fake. And it may be especially difficult for younger people, most of whom have less experience than adults with the media and more of whom now are growing up with social media as the norm (though to be fair, recent revelations about fake Russian news articles populating Facebook and other social media sites scammed quite a few adults as well).

This issue is illustrated in a new ACT report, Checking What Students Know about Checking the News, by Michelle Croft and Raeal Moore. It’s based on a survey of high schoolers who took the ACT test earlier this year and were asked where they get their news, how accurate they think their sources are, and what steps they take to judge that accuracy.

While more than 90 percent of students reported being aware of traditional news outlets (such as The New York Times) and were in general more aware of these outlets than of nontraditional outlets (such as The Blaze), some of the other survey results are sobering. For example, approximately half of students reported using YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter as a news source—sites that, while they do frequently contain factual information, consist of user-supplied content and do not follow the rigorous fact-checking procedures of traditional news outlets.

And while traditional news outlets received higher ratings for accuracy than nontraditional outlets, approximately half of students identified some of the latter as accurate. Even Infowars—a website routinely called out for containing blatant, even potentially harmful misinformation—was characterized as accurate by 39 percent of the students in our survey who reported being aware of it.

The good news is that students who had taken a course on how to evaluate news sources reported taking more steps to check the accuracy of articles than did students who had not taken such a course. This suggests that students will be better equipped to evaluate news sources if they have received appropriate instruction on how to differentiate between accurate, reliable information and inaccurate, unreliable information.

Thus, it seems that one of the best ways to counter fake news may just be a little education. It won’t stop the new breed of urban legends, but it may keep a lot of us from falling for them.

Follow Scott on Twitter (@MontyIc) and LinkedIn