Diary of a Professional Teen is a weekly column of #deep thoughts by twentysomething teenager and youth expert Taylor Trudon. Every Thursday, she’ll talk about her feelings in relation to what it’s like to be a Young Person in 2016.
Having had over three weeks to process the election results, by now we know that there’s a fake-news problem. But perhaps the worst part is that young people are most susceptible to it.
According to a recent Stanford study, roughly 82 percent of middle schoolers can’t distinguish between a sponsored piece of content on a website versus an actual news story. Most high school students also don’t realize when what they’re reading is made-up propaganda, the study reports. On one hand, this is troubling, but on the other, can we really blame young people when seemingly legitimate media outlets are misleading readers?
With platforms like Facebook having undoubtedly played a role in this election’s outcome — allowing “liars and con artists [to] hijack [Mark Zuckerberg’s] platform,” as one New York Times op-ed wrote — the bigger question becomes, do we allow Facebook to become fact-checkers for us? Whether it’s people or algorithms policing the content we read, it’s clear that the fake-news conundrum can’t be solved overnight — nor can we wait for the collective Zuckerbergs of the internet to fix it.
As we head into the next four years of Trump’s America, the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of facts falls on all of us. We all need to be accountable — from the individuals who are reporting the news to the social platforms that are filtering it to the readers sharing it.
The irony of the fake-news problem is that it speaks to the conversations we’ve had surrounding social media for years. Anyone with a brain knows that adding a rainbow filter to your profile picture doesn’t do anything except make you feel like you are part of something. We know that Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags do not create real, substantial change — only actions do that. But when you look at it that way, the outrage over fake news might seem contradictory. You’re basically telling me that what I post on social media doesn’t mean anything. So why does it matter?
It matters because there’s a big difference between making a personal statement (like changing your Facebook avatar) versus sharing information under the guise that it’s fact without checking it. While no one of “influence” may see that article you posted on Facebook, your 500 Facebook friends probably will. And in that pool of Facebook friends is someone who waits for these articles to tell them what to think and how to feel, as opposed to being a proactive consumer of news and finding out for themselves. It’s that Facebook friend who relies on these pieces of content to validate their beliefs, no matter how right or wrong or bigoted they might be. The spreading of fake news just adds fuel to their plastic, fake log fire (as pointed out by writer Ashley C. Ford below) and you don’t want to be responsible for contributing to that.
So as a consumer and sharer of news, what should you do? Start by seeking out credible sources and double-checking the validity of what you’re posting. (In the Stanford study, almost half of high school students believed that a photo of deformed daisies helped provide “strong evidence of toxic conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan,” even though the photo lacked a location source.) Read the entire article before you click the “retweet” button on Twitter. Be cognizant of key words like “allegedly” and “reportedly.” Read a story and look to see if other media outlets have reported on it. If you see a blatantly fake story going viral, don’t share it unless it’s for the sole purpose of calling it out as blatantly fake. These things may seem obvious, but being that we now live in a world where unqualified bankers are being picked to run our government, we shouldn’t assume anything.
The news you choose to share may not directly impact someone’s way of thinking, but for the most uninformed people in your social networks, it gives them additional ammunition to believe what they already hold to be true — regardless of its accuracy. And that’s a scary concept worth spreading.
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