The Internet has created its fair share of challenges for parents and teachers. As they work hard to ensure the next generation has the information necessary to succeed in life, they often find they're competing with electronic devices for attention. But while the World Wide Web provides distraction, it also makes it far easier to conduct research than decades ago, when a trip to the library was an essential part of every study session.
But recently, as huge swaths of the population have started curating their social news feeds so that they are only exposed to the information they believe already, "online research" has become increasingly problematic. Many adults, especially those who were raised with certain biases or who didn't get much education, are having a difficult time differentiating between real and fake news.
Older generations are still adjusting to the many changes technology has brought to the way they get information, but younger generations are fortunate to have been born right into this new paradigm. Regardless, all of us could use a refresher course in how to tell fake news from real news. This guide can help parents and teachers as they strive to help the next generation of leaders learn to properly research and gather information. It may be helpful to older folks as well.
Consider the Source
Fake news is one of the more troubling issues we face in society now. I can't go a day without seeing several stories about it float by on my twitter stream or Facebook timeline. The Wall Street Journal is now even buying Facebook ads touting that it provides content "created, curated and checked in a real newsroom." This provides an opening for parents and teachers to discuss fake news with children. Start by explaining the importance of news outlets as watchdogs. Investigative reporters have exposed widespread corruption in politics, business, and media outlets for decades. When children understand the role the news media plays in society, they're more likely to learn to trust those outlets that hire fully-trained investigative reporters.
Set a good example for your children, getting your news from legitimate sources. When your children cite information they see online, ask them to examine the source of that information, even if it means tracing it back. Help them learn the difference between a legitimate source and one that is more questionable. As they get older, walk your children through verifying sources of research studies and ensuring the sample size is large enough for the information to be valid.
Opinion Isn't Fact
Even traditional news media outlets sometimes have an opinion problem. Statements like, "The general consensus is" and, "Most people believe" have no place in a news article. A professional journalist knows to back up such statements with facts. Overall, media outlets should not be one-sided in reporting on any issue. They should always try to cover several points of view around an issue. If one side refuses to participate, the outlet should mention that it at least attempted to get a statement.
From a young age, children should be taught the difference between opinion and fact. There are fun activities and games that can teach students to distinguish between the two, but you can also practice it in your daily household activities. When siblings argue, assign each of them the duty of researching facts to back up the opinions they're stating. If your children are working on a report for class, insist that they ensure their sources are legitimate before citing them, even if it isn't required.
Ads Aren't Articles
Audiences have difficulty detecting native ads, and brands are well aware of this fact. Research has found that middle schoolers can't tell a paid advertisement from a real news story, especially as sophisticated as today's sponsored content has become. Social media has given brands a platform to slide promotional content in with regular content, making it difficult for users to know the difference. Ads on sites like Instagram, Twitter, and even LinkedIn are native, so with a little creativity businesses can get more attention than they would have with another type of paid marketing message.
It may become more difficult for brands to use social media to deploy fake news stories in an effort to get exposure. Facebook says it plans to crack down on what it considers "illegal, misleading, or deceptive" content. Google also says it will also remove fake news from its ad network. In both instances, however, sites don't stop fake news from appearing organically, especially when readers share the information on their own social media feeds. In fact, being blocked from ad networks could drive businesses to be even more creative in their online marketing efforts.
Teach Online Safety
Clickbait can be dangerous for reasons other than misinformation. Some of those sites just aren't healthy for your computer. When children learn to be wary about the links they click, they can also develop the skills necessary to avoid malware. These critical thinking skills will prove very valuable later in life, once young people start their careers and deal with corporate computer use policies.
When children do become active on social media, parents need to monitor their accounts initially and discuss responsible online behavior. Part of this discussion should include thinking carefully about what information they post, whether that means sharing personal information or reposting news items without questioning them first. There are many resources available to help you as you coach your children on responsible social media use.
The fake news problem likely won't disappear anytime soon. But if you teach your children to learn to seek the truth, they'll be equipped with the tools they need to get the best possible information on any topic. That skill will come in handy as they write papers in college, create reports in the workplace, and navigate the complicated world of cyberspace.