To assess just how well teens are able to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of online information, Stanford University researchers showed more than 3,000 high school students across the country a grainy Facebook video clip of poll workers stuffing ballots into bins, with captions stating that the videos depict Democratic 2016 primary elections in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Students were asked to decide whether the video, accompanied by a post that read "Have you ever noticed that the ONLY people caught committing voter fraud are Democrats?," was "strong evidence" of voter fraud during the 2016 Democratic primaries.
Over half of the students responded that it was — despite the fact that the video showed voter fraud in Russia, not in the United States. Among all of the students, only three were able to find the original source of the video.
Researchers with the Stanford History Education Group, an effort housed at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, called the results of their study "troubling": The inability of students to gauge the credibility and accuracy of online information poses a serious threat to "the vitality of American democracy."
"The 2020 presidential election is just a year away, and many current high school students will be first-time voters. Our findings show that they are unprepared to assess the information they encounter," Professor Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group, who co-authored the report with the group's director, Joel Breakstone, and Director of Assessment Mark Smith, said in a press release.
The Stanford History Education Group study, conducted with Texas education research group Gibson Consulting, was a follow-up to 2016 research, conducted in the wake of that year's presidential election and the rise of fake news. The earlier research found that students from middle school to college "struggled to perform even the most basic evaluations of digital material," confusing online ads with news stories and trusting a photo posted anonymously on social media.
For the new study, 3,446 high school students from 16 districts across 14 states, including California, evaluated videos, websites, articles and social media claims between June 2018 and May 2019. They were asked to complete six tasks, and the majority of students struggled with all of them, according to the results.
In one task, students were to determine whether a website is a reliable source of information about global warming. They were reminded that they were allowed to search online to answer that question. The few students who performed well on the task searched online to find out that the website is run by the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, a nonprofit organization funded by fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, that holds a skeptical view of climate change.
More than 96% of students surveyed failed to consider that ties to the fossil fuel industry might affect the credibility of the website, the report states.
In all of the study tasks, researchers were looking for students who used "lateral reading" — leaving websites to research their validity elsewhere — rather than reading vertically, looking only at the details of a page such as the domain type and the "about" page, which are "easy to manipulate," the report states.
The researchers purposely sought out a diverse student sample that would match the demographics of American high school students and allow for an analysis of racial, ethnic, regional and demographic differences. They found that students in urban districts outperformed peers from suburban and rural districts. Students who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander also scored better than their peers, as did students with mothers with higher levels of education. Students who reported receiving free and reduced lunch, marking lower income levels, and those whose families spoke a language other than English at home, did worse than their peers.
"Our findings suggest that, when it comes to evaluating the quality of digital sources, those most affected are students who have been underserved by our nation's schools," the report states. "Students' socioeconomic status and their ethnicity/race were significant predictors of performance. Equitable access to civic life depends on providing these students with the support they need to develop the skills of digital evaluation."
The vast majority of students, however, would benefit from more nuanced digital literacy instruction, the study authors wrote. The researchers were critical of the traditional "checklist approach," which provides students with long lists of questions that focus on a single website, and advocate instead for teaching how to navigate the broader internet to judge the trustworthiness of online information.
"Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health. A polluted information supply imperils our nation's civic health," the researchers wrote. "We need high-quality digital literacy curricula, validated by rigorous research, to guarantee the vitality of American democracy."