Alba Mendiola has a mantra when her juniors and seniors ask about something they saw on social media.
“I started saying, ‘Do you want to be informed or do you want to be influenced?’” the journalism teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen said. “It’s not the same thing.”
It’s not. But as research shows, it’s sometimes hard for students to tell which content is right and which is wrong when on TikTik, Instagram or YouTube.
For example, a 2022 study showed that 41 percent of adolescents surveyed couldn’t distinguish between inaccurate and correct health information.
In another Stanford University study, 96 percent of teens surveyed didn’t understand that the veracity of climate change information could be dubious if a fossil fuel company produced the website. The study also reported that more than half the teens said a Facebook video about ballot stuffing, shot in Russia, could be evidence of U.S. election fraud.
Discerning what’s fake
Students must know how to figure it out no matter how hard it is. As information sciences researcher Rachel Magee pointed out: “Young people are being asked to be online pretty regularly in one-to-one laptop programs and when parents want to know where their kids are after school and track their location.”
“There are lots of factors encouraging them to be engaging in online platforms,” said Magee of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne.
Knowing how to sift through all of the information thrown at you is a form of power, said Sofia Williams, 16, co-director of Teens for Press Freedom, a New York-based advocacy group.
“If teens are actively aware of what they are seeing, it gives them agency over the information they consume,” she said.
That’s because honing skepticism skills can stop someone from falling for scams or help them pick the best cellphone. It could also help bridge the nationwide political schism by making people savvier citizens, she said.
And understanding what’s misinformation, disinformation, or even fake information can keep teens from spreading harmful things to their friends, parents or siblings. That’s a good thing.
Back to TikTok. It’s Gen Z’s preferred platform — an Insider Intelligence report shows 61 percent of the generation use it at least twice a month. It’s also one of the more problematic sites (although it does flag incorrect content).
Last year, researchers at NewsGuard, a company that creates tools to safeguard against misinformation, found that 1 in 5 videos delivered in TikTok’s search engine contained false information.
“This means that for searches on topics ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to school shootings and COVID vaccines, TikTok’s users are consistently fed false and misleading claims,” the report’s authors said.
So how can someone stop spreading #faketoks and start developing a truth filter to fit any social media platform?
Step one: Slow down. That’s the first advice, Dan Evon, senior manager of education and design at the News Literacy Project, tells students. His organization is a nonpartisan nonprofit that teaches folks how to tell fact from fiction in what they read online. With the millions of pieces of content circulating, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, both he and Williams acknowledged. Don’t give up. Pause. Then try following the steps Evon’s organization created.
Step two: Check your emotions. Something that makes your blood boil could influence your decisions. Take a breath, then move on to the next step.
Step three: Consider the source. Who created the piece? Was it a credible and legitimate organization? Was it user-generated? Is the creator unfamiliar? Evaluate the reporting to see if it’s legit. If you still feel like something is off, dig deeper into who the source is and whether it should be trusted.
Step four: Research the claim. This step takes a little longer, but it’s worth it. Move off the platform and do a Google search for reputable sites that will help verify facts, events and even context.
If you’re still unsure what to look for or which questions to ask, Evon suggests turning to the “5 Factors” found on News Literacy Project’s platform, RumorGuard. Ask: Is it authentic? Has it been posted or confirmed by a credible source? Is there evidence that proves the claim? Is the context accurate? And finally, is the claim based on solid reasoning?
Despite the confusing messages circulating on social media, it can be a healthy place for young people to develop ideas and social circles, Magee said. So don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re seeing with a parent, librarian or teacher like Mendiola to create a positive experience online.
“We can find this out together,” she said.
Efforts are underway to inoculate against the dangers of bad online information. Mendiola, for example, uses News Literacy Project’s curriculum to teach her students how to evaluate information. Two congressional proposals, the Kids Online Safety Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, aim to create a healthier online environment for adolescents and teens.
In the meantime, experts say the best defense is to train yourself to think critically when on social media or the internet.
“We should have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with the internet,” Mendiola said. “This is how you use it, but … you have to be careful.”
Erika Hobbs is a freelance writer, editor and digital strategist in Chicago.