Training the Newest Generation for the Onslaught of Misinformation, Conspiracy Theories, and Pseudoscience

By Samantha O’Connell

A Generation of Digital Natives

Generation Z, America’s next cohort to come of age, is just as “diverse and contradictory as the society in which they’ve been raised,” according to Ernst & Young, but what seemingly unites them is their constant exposure to the internet: They are, after all, the first generation of digital natives. Although “Zoomers,” an affectionate term for Gen Z, is mainly a play on the previous “Baby Boomer,” it also accurately captures their frenetic upbringings in a world of exploding technology, extreme efficiency, and an endless source of information waiting in their pockets at a moment’s notice. With that unstoppable force of new media, unfortunately, has come sinister attempts to erode Americans’ trust and spread disinformation, and our children are constantly living right within the storm. The quote “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” has never been more accurate than in the Internet Era, a.k.a Gen Z’s childhood. 

In 2018, about half of American teens reported being online “nearly constantly” and 59 percent consider YouTube to be their preferred learning method over books and in-class teaching, all of which has prompted stereotypes about Gen Z’s anti-social behavior and crippling phone addiction. The technophobic conclusion that “phones are bad, books are good” changes nothing and rather alienates young adults, but that still leaves plenty of room for a middle ground. 

A Misinformation Minefield

In fact, the rather lax community guidelines of popular websites like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, when compared to the strict regulations of traditional broadcast media, allow conspiracy theories, fake science, and even alt-right messaging to fly under the radar and into the recommended pages of users. Thanks to these sites’ recommendation algorithms, those who watch one pseudoscience video, for example, can quickly find themselves in a feedback loop of false information, exposed to increasingly radical communities. Only after almost a full year of increasing extremist violence and constant misinformation about the pandemic has YouTube finally decided to remove videos spreading fake COVID-19 vaccine news or that promote the QAnon conspiracy theory in a way that targets and threatens specific individuals. (Please note, videos centered around this dangerous, unhinged theory that don’t implicate specific people as pedophilic cannibals are still in the clear). 

When the “future leaders of America” who will soon shape our democratic institutions can stumble upon fake COVID-19 science, Pizzagate conspiracists, and even white supremacists in a matter of clicks, alarm bells should start ringing. And when organizer of the ridiculous Flat Earthers, Mark Sargent, calls Gen Z’s favorite educational tool, YouTube, “the catalyst for most of this [movement]” and “the biggest television network in the world,” those alarms should amplify. 

Interestingly enough, Gen Z is actually better at identifying “fake news” online and much less likely to share it compared to Baby Boomers, research finds. Though members of Gen Z are naturally more impressionable and inexperienced by virtue of their age—the very oldest ones turn just 23 this year—they seem to have a home field advantage. After all, they have never known a world without social media and, as a result, have developed some skepticism towards it. However, this competitive edge that Gen Z might have online over older Americans shouldn’t be misconstrued as proof that Zoomers are totally well-equipped for the battlefield of misinformation and can thus be left to their own devices (quite literally). A 2019 study conducted by Stanford History Education Group into teens’ digital literacy found that more than 96 percent of high school students failed to question the validity of an unreliable source regarding climate change, and more than half fell for a video about the threat of ballot stuffing in the US when all the clips used were actually from Russia instead. 

One Possible Solution

So, should this group of young citizens simply rely on their natural instincts to wade through a now never-ending stream of information? And should we just trust that social media companies will reform their platforms quickly enough to contain the “monster” they’ve helped unleash?

For organizations like the Media Literacy Project as well as legislatures in states like Florida, and Ohio who have passed serious educational reforms, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” According to Sam Wineburg, lead author of the aforementioned Stanford study, “The ability to determine what is reliable or not reliable — that is the new basic skill in our society,” and American schools are beginning to recognize their role in teaching kids this increasingly coveted ability. 

As our knowledge about the fake-news epidemic expands, nonprofits such as the Media Literacy Project have designed resources for educators and the public at large with the aim of creating “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.” Using recent examples of misinformation in the media, for instance, the organization designs discussion questions and activities to use in the classroom, with the ultimate goal that students will gradually pass important benchmarks: understanding the role of bias in the media, discerning whether evidence to support an author’s claims is credible, sorting news from opinion pieces or advertising, evaluating whether a source is credible based on his/her relationship with the subject matter, and ensuring that information is truthful and reliable before sharing it with others. Teaching these skills in the classroom attacks the problem at the root level and hopefully places America’s future in good hands, but really anyone in today’s chaotic digital landscape should make great efforts to acquire proper media literacy. 

A Step In The Right Direction 

Thus far, 14 states have taken legislative action to incorporate media literacy education into their K-12 curricula, though with varying degrees of success. Ohio and Florida take the earlier lead for statutes that explicitly require some sort of media training in every grade level’s curriculum and for referring to media literacy as an essential skill. Despite these positive developments, we still have a great deal of ground to cover if we want to catch up with countries such as France, Finland, and the UK which have long had media education programs within their schools.

The current state of the internet mirrors an unhealthy democracy. Lack of accountability? Check. Look at how anonymity online has emboldened trolls to lie, spam, and harass online without taking responsibility. Ideological echo chambers? Check. Look at the ways social media manipulates the information you encounter based on your preferences and contributes to the nation’s deep divisions. And confusion about basic facts and reality? Unfortunately, another check. The two completely different versions of the COVID-19 pandemic presented online this year should provide ample evidence. 

Knowledge is power, and just as improving civic education could restore faith in our democratic  institutions, raising a generation of truly intelligent media consumers would be a game-changer. Love them or hate them, Generation Z is not going anywhere (especially since more than 20 million are already eligible to vote in the November election). Why not give them the best fighting chance of steering American democracy from disaster by ensuring that they can, at the very least, properly describe the shape of the Earth?

Title Image Source:

Aaro Berhane

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