This week, Stanford University published a study on students’ ability to reason about the credibility of information they encounter online. As it turned out, the digital natives (they grew up in the digital era) are very easily fooled, despite the fact that they have been given media literacy courses and spend lots of time online. Frequently made mistakes include judging information as trustworthy because it comes up first in search engines, perceiving a website as reliable because it ends in “.org” and believing statements by a person who has many followers on, for example, Twitter. These results are somewhat counterintuitive as we tend to think that misjudging online information is mostly a problem of the elderly, who can be referred to as digital immigrants since they did not grew up in the digital era.
What does this mean?
Clearly, this is not just a generational problem. As common-sense philosopher Thomas Reid already noted in the 18th century, it is in our nature to believe information that comes to us. This is a useful disposition when we need to learn a lot. Were we to question everything our parents and caretakers try to teach us, our acquisition of knowledge would slow down dramatically. To emphasize how easily fake news can form false narratives, MIT recently released a deep fake in which Nixon gives a speech on the moon landing as if it had failed. As the sources of information about the world have become numerous and often unreliable with the rise of the digital era, young people, just like the elderly, should have a critical disposition towards the information they encounter online. For if they are not able to critically evaluate this information, they will internalize false claims and misleading arguments.
Since media literacy courses and time spent online apparently haven’t done the trick, the search for a way to enable people to be more resistant to misleading information or simply fake news is far from over. This week, internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee launched a plan to fix the internet, called The Contract for the Web. It includes nine principles (divided over four themes: access & openness, privacy & data rights, positive tech and public action), three each for governments, companies and citizens. In these plans, fighting fake news is an important point of attention. Yet, the disappointing results of digital natives’ ability to judge online information show that, for now, we have to be careful not to rely too much on citizens and this in turn, would imply that governments and companies have to take a leading role in protecting citizens from disinformation.