Welcome to the Misinformation Age.
Contrary to futurists’ predictions of a golden Information Age, our research has shown most people struggle to effectively learn online. The Internet is awash in information: Some of it helpful, some of it deceptive, and all of it challenging for people to integrate and understand.
Every second, online falsehoods are shared, retweeted, and liked on social media. Many websites and articles that “go viral” are seductive fictions, including sites purposefully disguised as news sources intended to mislead, and those created by entrepreneurs interested solely in gaining web traffic and earning money from online advertising.
The frequency of such deceptions is likely to increase as more and more people rely on the Internet as their primary, and often only, source of news. Search providers and social media sites are acknowledging the increasing presence of online deceptions, and proposing solutions, but the responsibility for overcoming this challenge rests with us all.
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Using the Internet to make decisions, in the voting booth and in life, requires something our research has found critically lacking in children and adults alike: digital literacy.
In the past, people trusted major network news and professional journalists to deliver the “truth” but the Internet has no accepted judges, curators, or guides to tell us which information is worth our time, and which is not. Readers must do this work themselves, and unfortunately most of us lack the digital literacy knowledge and skills to find, manage, question and integrate the vast amount of information – and misinformation – found online.
This digital literacy crisis spans political, social and regional lines, and, perhaps surprisingly, today’s technology-savvy youth are just as easily duped as older generations. For example, despite middle-school students’ facility with search tools, researchers found a professional-looking website fooled them into believing in the existence of a fictional, and, frankly ludicrous, Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.
Even when presented with reliable sources, we have found many people fail to explore thoroughly, or think critically. The fact is most people just aren’t naturally good at using the Internet to learn.
People fail to learn online for several reasons.
Research shows many people tend to accept the first answer they find, rarely going beyond the headline, or the first page of a Google search. Most people lack the expertise, motivation, or time to thoroughly research complex topics like climate change, the stock market, or the latest policy debate.
People seek out only the information and sources that reaffirm their views. Why? Because it is mentally exhausting to have one’s deepest held convictions challenged. Readers rarely question the trustworthiness of their favorite news website, or read conflicting news sources with an open mind. In fact, people actively deny challenges to their beliefs, discounting or even antagonizing relatives who “like” an article contradicting their views. For most of us, once we decide a website is worth our trust, we rarely question our faith, or carefully compare what pundits promise to what they deliver.
What can we do?
Research has shown people can become more digitally literate. But like most things of value, the path is not easy.
True digital literacy requires the willpower to find, read and consider differing views, a willingness to change our mind, and a goal of understanding and not just confirmation.
Schools must teach and nurture digital literacy across disciplines: including science, literature and civics. Parents must encourage their children to ask why, and show them how to deeply pursue both questions and answers. And we all have to take more responsibility for what we learn, and what we post, online.
We all must more carefully seek reliable sources and question our intentions – are we reading or sharing information to increase our understanding or simply to validate our own views? Perhaps most challenging, we all must learn to resist the temptations of an online world that is designed to tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to know.
Jeffrey A. Greene is an Associate Professor and Victor M. Deekens is a doctoral student in the Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies Program in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.