Teens, typically the crest of any cultural trend, are struggling to keep up with the rise of “fake news” and its proliferation through all of the social platforms they essentially exist on.
“When I ask ‘How many of you have shared fake news?’ so many kids raise their hands — they’re so confused about what they see online,” Katy Byron, manager of the growing MediaWise program out of the nonprofit media consultancy the Poynter Institute, explained after hosting a small group of adolescents for a lesson on how to determine when an online story, meme or video is illegitimate or untrustworthy. The lesson was held at Google headquarters in New York. Google, arguably the embodiment of the Internet and so at the red-hot center of the misinformation epidemic (along with Facebook), is a main MediaWise sponsor through its Google News Initiative and it’s philanthropic arm Google.org.
“When they’re going through their social media feeds, they have no idea how to figure this stuff out and they have no one to ask, that’s the biggest problem,” Byron said. “Their parents don’t know, their teachers don’t know, certainly their grandparents don’t know. They’re on their own.”
It’s not difficult to see why young people are confused about what comes across their various feeds, if they actually consider it at all. Now, one basically needs to understand journalistic standards and the basics of professional fact-checking to really know what kind of information is fake, especially at a glance, the time frame in which social media operates. Such skills may seem like a big civic ask, particularly for teenagers who don’t have jobs, much less ones as media professionals, but teaching them such skills is the entire basis of the MediaWise program. And, at less than a year old, it’s increasingly in demand.
Byron compared it to “drinking from a firehose,” an increasingly common metaphor among experts and journalists discussing the pace of media and the rise of fake news, particularly around politics. Even teens, the only group the MediaWise project is working to educate right now, are so politically polarized that Byron had to early on rework the entire presentation, removing any examples of politically driven misinformation, despite taking pains to include examples from the left and the right.
“Politics is such a hot rod for every community, even in that age group. I was shocked,” Byron, whose team recently taught 6,000 kids around Boston and Detroit, said. “They’ve already formed these very heated opinions on things and they don’t even fully understand them. I think it’s a symptom of this whole [misinformation] space.”
But that’s not to say teens aren’t interested in getting facts around issues and understanding the news of the day. They just need it to be where they already are.
“The most frequent thing I hear from viewers is ‘I didn’t think I liked the news before I found ‘Stay Tuned’” Savannah Sellers said of NBC’s quick news show that she hosts on Snapchat. Sellers is a new MediaWise ambassador and participated in the Google-hosted event on Thursday night. “Stay Tuned,” launched in 2017, gets between 20 million and 30 million unique views a month on the platform, mainly from viewers between the ages of 16 and 19, according to NBC. While the show has more recently expanded to YouTube and TikTok in lengths appropriate to those platforms (several minutes and a few seconds, respectively), Snapchat is the big one and Sellers hears directly from viewers on issues she covers constantly. So many and so often that she can’t keep up.
“It’s not that young people don’t care or that they aren’t going to grow up to be informed citizens who watch the news, it’s that we weren’t meeting them on the platforms they exist on and not everyone has been willing to address some of their questions,” Sellers said.
“Stay Tuned” did an entire series around the midterm elections based on crowdsourced questions, one of the most common of which was “What are the midterms?” It’s hard to imagine an “adult” news show taking that question seriously, much less dedicating an entire segment to it. But maybe it should, considering not only the pace of news today, but that only 49 percent of the eligible U.S. voted in the midterms, which is still, shockingly, the highest rate in a century.
“Half of the questions the teens ask me on my phone my mom is also wondering,” Sellers said. “[Media professionals] exist in our media bubbles making media produced for the entire country. If I’m even offline for three or four days, I can’t just tune in to MSNBC because so much has happened I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Despite political misinformation seeming the most urgent part of the MediaWise program and its inspiration, the program now is decidedly unpolitical. Before Byron changed it to keep with lighter examples like #FloridaMan, doctored celebrity photos and what words signal a story or a social media post is actually a paid advertisement (something MediaWise has found only about 25 percent of teens are capable of detecting) she would lose the audience to political arguments.
“We’re just trying to teach skills,” Byron said.
It’s a bit early to have real measurements of success, but Byron said whenever she speaks to students after a presentation, they’re gung-ho about the topic of media literacy and even social media best practices being taught in school. A full MediaWise curriculum designed by the Stanford History Education Group is coming this fall, so what the kids actually take away from the program, if they become less passive and more critical of the media they consume, will become clearer.
Something else that’s coming along is an expansion of the program. Byron holds that starting with a younger age group was sound, since this is the generation that’s growing up on social media and likely seeing the most misinformation. But she admits to being asked constantly why there isn’t a MediaWise program for seniors, a group that’s just as susceptible, if not more so, to malicious misinformation online. A representative of AARP actually came to the event, which did seem to be more of a demonstration for possible partners than the 10 young people who were being taught.
Even with an expansion of the program, ideally getting teens, their parents and grandparents motivated and up to speed on how to decipher what is and isn’t real information online, is it right for the onus to be wholly on consumers, and not the platforms that host and profit off the proliferation of “fake news” in all of its forms?
Byron, a former reporter who actually worked at Snapchat as its first managing editor of news before joining Poynter, was circumspect.
“The platforms are in a very sticky situation,” she said. “I do think their hand might be forced by Washington, D.C., at some point, although it’s not clear how and it might take a while.”
Until then, media literacy is coming to a high school near you.
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