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Despite growing up in the digital world, today's teenagers are easy prey to disinformation, especially on their favorite social media platforms. Some fact-checking and media literacy outfits are struggling to fix that.
Robert Nemeth and
Marius Dragomir
Despite growing up in the digital world, today’s
teenagers are easy prey to disinformation,
especially on their favorite social media platforms.
Some fact-checking and media literacy outfits are
struggling to fix that.
In an era when disinformation is alive and kicking, it is often challenging for any
news consumer to decide whether a news item is real or fake. And it is not only a
challenge for adults. “Children can be targets and objects of mis/disinformation,
spreaders or creators of it,” according to a recent UNICEF report, which argues that
children are even more susceptible to bogus news, because they are not properly
equipped to judge whether information is true or false.
Even though teens and tweens (pre-teens, between the age of around 10-13) have
been growing up in the digital world, more than half of them don’t know how to
distinguish fake news stories from real ones, according to a report by Common
Sense Media (CSM), a nonprofit organization aimed at helping parents, children and
teachers to better understand media and technology. Its findings are echoed by a
report of Stanford History Education Group, which showed that the majority of
teenagers have trouble navigating the internet when they search for information.
Another report issued by the group showed that high-school students “remain
unprepared to navigate the digital landscape,” and they “displayed a troubling
tendency to accept websites at face value.”
The CSM report also found that teens and tweens don’t really trust news: only one
in four thinks that news items they see online are “very accurate.” The report also
examined their sources of news, and found that 39% prefer social media, while
traditional media is the number one source for only 24%.
Troubling findings that hide an uncomfortable truth: shavers are as easy to dupe as
anyone else.
The social media platforms most consumed by the young generations are TikTok
and YouTube, followed by Instagram. TikTok officially has over one billion active
users a month. This makes it the fourth largest social media platform in the world,
according to data from Wallaroo Media. Facebook leads with 2.9 billion users,
followed by YouTube with 2.2 billion and Instagram with some 1.4 billion users.
However, TikTok is the fastest growing social media player among all four. It was
the second most downloaded app in the U.S. in November 2021, with four million
downloads, trailing only the streaming platform Disney+. Facebook’s own TikTok
clone application, Lasso had only 250,000 downloads in the U.S. in one year.
TikTok had more than 41 million.
Furthermore, six out of 10 TikTok users belong to Generation Z, that is, people born
after the mid-1990s, making it the largest age cohort among its users. Almost one
third of all TikTok users in the U.S. are between 10 and 19, and they are very active:
the average user spent 21.5 hours per month on the platform in 2020, a significant
increase from the 12.8 hours in 2019.
On Facebook and Instagram, users between the ages of 25 and 34 constitute the
largest demographic group (around 31% and 33%, respectively). According to a recent
survey, 29% of American teens named TikTok as their favorite social media
platform, and 25% selected Instagram. Only 2% mentioned Facebook.
The New Superspreaders on the Block
It is not then surprising that many education experts and organizations realized how
important it is to teach media literacy. Research has shown that media literacy
creates better resistance to online misinformation. UNESCO introduced a new
approach to promote media and information literacy (MIL), based on how
misinformation spreads on social media. Its program, known as MIL CLICKS, is
aimed at helping people to acquire MIL competencies “in their normal day-to-day
use of the Internet and social media and to engage in peer education in an
atmosphere of browsing, playing, connecting, sharing, and socializing.”
"For too long, media and information literacy programs have focused on young
people as beneficiaries of MIL. We need to engage young people as catalysts for
change, as co-creators and co-leaders of media and information literacy
development and dissemination," Alton Grizzle, a program specialist with UNESCO,
told Deutsche Welle.
The program has achieved some positive results. Since the beginning of the Covid-
19 pandemic, disinformation has been spreading even faster than the virus itself,
nonetheless, there has also been “an uptick in the sharing and engagement with
content connected to the MIL CLICKS platform,” Grizzle said. It is particularly
encouraging to see that uptick also in regions such as Africa, Asia and Latin America
where media literacy is still in its infancy.
On YouTube, users between 15 and 25 form the largest age group, a statistic that is,
however, somewhat skewed by the lack of the age group below 15 in this dataset. A
survey by the Pew Research Center found that 80% of American parents with a child
aged 11 or younger said that their kids watch videos on YouTube. More than half of
them use the platform daily.
The overabundance of misinformation on social media is therefore especially
important: an investigation by Newsguard, a journalism and technology tool that
rates the credibility of news and information websites and tracks online
misinformation, found that young people who opened TikTok are almost
immediately exposed to false news and conspiracy theories about various topics.
Add to that the exposure to misinformation that circulates rapidly through
messaging applications like WhatsApp. A recent study by Paula Herrero-Diz, Jesús
Conde-Jiménez and Salvador Reyes de Cózar found that “under the guise of news,
an attractive format and outrage discourse,” misinformation appeals to emotions
which often results in impulsive sharing. And, since on mobile phones sharing is
also a matter of trust, “they are less likely to check a piece of content before
resending it if it comes from a contact in their personal address book.”
Partially as a result of all these media consumption trends, almost one third of teens
and tweens said that, in the past six months, they had shared a story that later
turned out to be fake, the CSM report found.
Learning To See Truth Where There
Is None
Besides media literacy, or as part of it, learning to check facts is also important to
keep young generations well informed. Teaching media literacy and fact-checking
to teens and tweens is especially important in countries where the majority of the
population is young. Take Zimbabwe where around 70% percent of the people are
younger than 35, and more than 40% is below 15.
Zimbabwe is also characterized by an “overwhelming amount of misinformation in
the information ecosystem,” said Cris Chinaka, editor-in-chief of ZimFact,
Zimbabwe’s first national, independent and non-partisan fact-checking platform.
Hence, “you want people, including the youth, to focus on public interest issues, and
not gossip and conspiracy theories.”
Launched in 2018, ZimFact is dedicated to playing a watchdog role by fact-checking
news and information in the public domain. It also promotes media literacy in
schools, colleges and universities as well as equips media practitioners with fact-
checking skills and tools through training programs.
The organization’s media literacy programs are rooted in the belief that
empowering the youth with basic fact-checking skills helps them to recognize and
reject misinformation. According to Chinaka, ZimFact’s experts go to different
schools, explain the danger that misinformation poses to communities and
individuals, and run a basic training focusing on what the audience should look at to
recognize misinformation.
The program was launched almost two years ago, but the lockdowns triggered by
the Covid-19 pandemic limited its potential, forcing ZimFact’s fact-checkers to visit
only eight schools and 12 colleges. “Virtual training is not really possible here due to
limitations in infrastructure,” Chinaka said. Face-to-face programs have a much
higher impact, he added. Nonetheless, ZimFact’s plans remain ambitious: they plan
to increase the number of visited schools to 100 over the course of the next two
According to Chinaka, the highlight of the program was the establishment of a fact-
checking club comprising 50 students at the Harare Polytechnic College. ZimFact
helps them improve their fact-checking skills and edit their content. Members of
the club also fact-check information themselves and share the results of their work
with their peers.
ZimFact not only trains young people, but also tries to reach out to a larger number
of them by sharing with them on WhatsApp stories describing how they debunked
false stories. WhatsApp is the most popular platform used to exchange information
in Zimbabwe. “Literally almost everyone uses it,” Chinaka said. In the beginning, the
team at ZimFact thought that the organization’s website would be their most
important platform, but they quickly realized that they had way more impact,
especially among young people, through WhatsApp. “They spend a lot of their time
on the platform, so this is where we can make an intervention,” Chinaka said.
WhatsApp Schooling: Best Way To Teach
Kids How To Check Facts in Zimbabwe
ZimFact sends out factsheets or texts about debunked stories that they previously
posted on social media to the four WhatsApp groups the organization has created
thus far. The ZimFact’s audience on WhatsApp has been constantly growing mostly
thanks to the work that ZimFact’s team does in the field, such as regular visits to
schools or college clubs where they invite students to join these groups.
To engage with the young audiences, ZimFact identified the topics these people are
mostly interested in: education, employment and the pandemic. “These topics
receive lots of traction every now and then,” Chinaka said.
Communication in the WhatsApp groups is not one-way. ZimFact also receives
requests and tips for fact-checking certain topics. For example, it has recently
received an increasing number of inquiries from the audience to fact-check job
advertisements published on social media platforms, many of which turn out to be
Verificat, the first independent, non-profit fact-checking platform in Catalonia, has
also increasingly focused on young audiences in recent years. “Young people are not
only consumers, but also producers and distributors of information,” one can read
on Verificat’s website.
With funding from YouTube and the International Fact-Checking Network,
Verificat launched in 2020 its “fact-checking for Generation Z” DesFake program, a
project that targets high school students who share content in their social media
networks, especially on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok.
The program was tested in a high school in Sant Boi de Llobregat, a small town close
to Barcelona, where first-year students were taught to verify content: false news,
manipulated images or videos. After a few weeks, they started to build a YouTube
channel and create profiles on other social media platforms to share their findings.
The project has been designed to fit the academic year. There are 24 hours of
training distributed in 16 sessions. As the pilot was successful, the program was
expanded to three more schools this year thanks to support from the Barcelona City
“Before it didn’t even dawn on me to go to the original sources, at this age you don’t
think about it, it’s much easier to share something if you like it,” Laia, a 14-year-old
student in the program, told El Pais. “Now I am a different person,” she added.
Verificat plans to involve more institutions in the program and offer them tailor-
made workshops: sessions of one to four hours for students to learn about
verification tools and methodologies. The group also offers thematic workshops
that allow students to analyze the relation between misinformation and social issues,
or misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Teaching Catalonian Teens How To
Debunk False Information
The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based think tank that works on supporting
journalism, facts and media literacy, believes that the most effective approach to
combat misinformation must be education-based. The institute launched in 2018
the program MediaWise, which teaches “teens to be critical media consumers and
make decisions based on facts.” One of the central elements of the program is the
Teen Fact-Checking Network (TFCN), which focuses on middle and high school
students (age 11-18), and is also a verified signatory of the International Fact-
Checking Network’s Code of Principles.
"A lot of people assume that teenagers – because they're digitally savvy and grew up
with the internet are better at identifying misinformation. But that is not true,"
MediaWise program manager Katy Byron told Business Insider. The program
equips teens with skills and tools that professional fact-checkers also use. These
teens then also show other students what they learnt. The idea of “showing rather
than telling” is one of the main goals of the program, according to the program’s
mission statement.
“I think my teachings have made an impact on my peers, both because they’re more
willing to listen to things other teenagers are saying, and because it’s a more
accessible way to understand an important issue in today’s society,” said Taylor
Fang, one of the participants in the program.
The program helps teens spot all types of misinformation, Alexa Volland, head of
TFCN said in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, adding that “our
teens are using social media storytelling to virtually walk viewers through every step
of how they fact-checked these claims.”
TFCN doesn’t only train teens, but also publishes daily fact-checks for them,
performed by the trainees. And it seems to have achieved a solid impact. According
to a (non-representative) poll on the MediaWise Instagram account, 86% of
respondents voted that they were more likely to fact-check on their own after
watching a TFCN fact-check story.
"We're not changing the world right here, but we are slowly making people more
aware of the information they're putting out into the world. And that is how we stop
the spread of misinformation," MediaWise’s fact-checker Thea Barrett said.
Changing the world might well be a utopian goal. Yet, if more and more young
adults are made aware of how exposed they are to misinformation, they will begin
to look more critically at dubious information shared on various platforms instead
of helping to spread it, and thus will be better equipped to debunk such lies
themselves. That will indeed be a first, albeit small, step in the right direction in the
fight against disinformation.
Fake News Busting Teens United
Robert Nemeth Marius Dragomir
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