A new study from Stanford examined grade school through college students’ (in)ability to judge a source’s credibility, including bias in news articles and sponsored content. The results do not look good. The researchers who conducted the analysis were “dismayed” by the results, according to NPR.
In a separate experiment, more than half of a group of Stanford undergraduate students believed that an article by the fringe source American College of Pediatricians — a source that’s been known to link homosexuality to pedophilia — was more reliable than one by the accredited American Academy of Pediatrics.
This news may come as a shock to those of us who consider ourselves digitally fluent. I mean, I grew up in the digital age — my cellphone is practically an extension of my physical being, what do you mean I can’t tell the difference between an ad and real news?
Exactly that: Our technology has become an extension of us, so we trust it automatically. We develop confirmation bias about the stories on our newsfeed because we adopt them as a continuation of our own beliefs. We treat content we read like we treat our own thoughts, and we try to defend the things we read or watch because we internalize them as if they were our own.
This says something scary about our perception of truth in the content we consume. There is a movement in advertising to engage with consumers in every space possible, and that means both native advertising and sponsored content — when a company pays for content they created to be published on a social or news media website — are hot marketing solutions.
Both of these techniques create advertising that is meant to be consumed as content instead of an ad. They work: About 82 percent of middle schoolers in Stanford’s study failed to distinguish or even question the difference between sponsored content and real news stories.
After the election, liberal-leaning but mainstream sources (Vox and Buzzfeed) ran stories explaining how fake news articles overtook mainstream ones in Facebook engagement over the last three months of the election. Vox and Buzzfeed, like producers of fake content, rely heavily on social media to recruit viewers. Both the Case Foundation and the PEW Research Renter found the majority of millennials get their political news from Facebook.
Assuming the Stanford study is relatively representative, the majority of people who engaged with the inaccurate news articles believed the content in them.
So how do you become digitally literate? An easy way is to Google the source and see what reviews of the source turn up. Ask yourself questions about the source’s background and relevancy.
Does this require more effort? Yes, but frankly, with the time you waste on social media, you have time to do a quick search. Checking the credibility of your sources not only makes you look smart, but it keeps you from spreading misinformation. The bottom line is that practicing digital literacy keeps you in check with reality.
Instead of whining about the decline of journalism, trusting every article that comes your way or giving into paranoia and making a DIY tinfoil hat, we should react to these findings by becoming more engaged in our own media selection process. It’s time to bring back that decades old adage: Trust but verify.
MacLean is an advertising and geography sophomore from Austin. Follow her on twitter @maclean_josie