PALO ALTO (CBS SF) – With the debate over fake news on social media raging in the wake of Election Day in the nearby Silicon Valley, a new Stanford study has found that teens may be the most vulnerable audience for false digital stories.
The study released Tuesday was conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Sam Wineburg, whose team surveyed 7,804 students from middle school through college in 12 states.
What he found was that 82 percent of middle school students could not distinguish between a native ad sponsored content and a real news story.
Meanwhile, nearly 40% of high school students surveyed did not question a link between an unsourced photo of deformed daisies that was coupled with a headline about the region near Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant.
Researchers said the photo had no attribution of actually being from Fukushima.
"Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there," Wineburg said in a press release. "Our work shows the opposite to be true."
Researchers began the project in January 2015, well before the fake news on social media controversy erupted following the election of Donald Trump.
The study actually focused on news literacy, as well as students' ability to judge Facebook and Twitter feeds, comments left in readers' forums on news sites, blog posts, photographs and other digital messages that shape public opinion.
However, researchers did test the students' knowledge of the political campaign before Election Day.
The students were asked to evaluate two Facebook posts announcing Trump's candidacy for president.
The release said one of the posts was from a verified (blue checked) Fox News account and the other was from an account that looked like Fox News.
Only a quarter of the students recognized and explained the significance of the blue verified checkmark. And over 30 percent of students argued that the fake account was more trustworthy because of some key graphic elements that it included.
When it came to Google searches, the study found results were often "more challenging with politically charged topics" for the students.
Wineburg said the next step for his group will be to develop lesson plans and videos to help educators address how their students gather information on social and other digital platforms.
"As recent headlines demonstrate, this work is more important now than ever," Wineburg said in the release.
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