You may remember hearing about the terrifying hoax that occurred on the eve of Halloween in 1938. A radio broadcast of Orson Wells, War of the Worlds, purported that Martians had invaded earth. The program created a nationwide panic. It seemed so real; Americans believed it.
Well—it’s happening again today.
We live in a growing world of “fake.” In the words of journalists Jon Swartz and Marco della Cava, “Fake content is a genuine problem on the Internet. Between fake news that sways elections, fake apps that trick shoppers and fake book reviews that stymie sales, the web has seen a surge in fantastic, misleading and outright false messaging that threatens to make the truth hard to find.”
Welcome to the world of social media.
Why This Is a Big Deal
Perhaps folks have always been gullible to outlandish stories. They spark emotions inside listeners and perpetuate gossip. In today’s world, these stories result in “likes” and “shares” on social media outlets—without any checks or balances. News researchers have counted at least 60 sites that post fake on-line news stories with either fabrications or exaggerations that make the story incredible—without credibility.
What do we learn from this research? Well, to start with, Facebook is the number one tool for referrals of false information, accounting for nearly half of their traffic. And while adults are even vulnerable to the world of fake—I’m writing because of the danger to our students. Kids are growing up in a world where social media plays a gigantic role in how they get their information. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, nearly two of every three people receive their news from social media sources, up from about half in 2012.
While we all know you can’t trust everything you see on social media, we still get it and tend to react to it—especially young teens. According to a new study, 82% of middle school students can’t tell the difference between sponsored content and a real news article. For years, teachers have been telling students not to trust content from Wikipedia; now, it appears we must warn them about most other information sources as well. During the recent election, major news outlets were criticized for being biased and I believe the accusation may just be credible. However, I wonder if broadcast journalists tend to share opinions rather than merely reporting facts because social media has made a circus out of journalism. We all feel the need to “share the real truth of the story,” and we can’t seem to help but exaggerate. It’s ironic. Our generation—which claims to value authenticity—may be the most fake population of people to date. Just look at the adorable “selfies” we post that make us look irresistible. Never mind that we had to take 20 pictures to get the perfect shot.
Psychiatrist Keith Ablow, the author of Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty, says our social media and gossip-obsessed culture “softened us up for fiction with little time for introspection. We’re particularly vulnerable to fake news because many of us are faking our lives on Facebook or texts or gaming, many of us are creating false narratives through fabulous exotic vacation photos, celebrity selfies and fantasy games. Our thirst for authenticity is waning.”
How Can We Help Our Students?
The problem won’t go away overnight, but I believe it’s time to address this issue with our students. Let’s prepare them to live in this artificial world as authentic people who possess a genuine and grateful spirit. Let me get you started.
1. Challenge students to be counter-cultural.
Talk to students about their value of authenticity—then challenge them to live up to it. Encourage a revolt against the “fake” world we live in, full of artificial content, fake personas and photo-shopped pictures. Dare them to initiate the honest posts they want from others; to refuse to post anything unless it’s truthful and helpful.
2. Teach them how to fact check.
Talk to them about the volume of “fake” content on-line and challenge them to check the veracity of that content. We do this for research papers and I believe it’s time to do it with social media sources. Let’s demand legitimacy in our information. In fact, let’s teach students to consume social media messaging with a dose of skepticism.
3. Show them the dangers of “fake.”
You don’t have to look far to spot how dangerous “fake news” is today. A simple Google search will reveal stories of people who’ve lost jobs, spouses, friends, reputations and maybe even elections due to inaccurate information floating around social media. Let’s help students identify the potential damage of such content and encourage them to avoid posting anything short of the truth.
4. Discuss the use of social media.
The very nature of social media platforms—the goal—is to prioritize news that achieves the most engagement, which may just be a falsified or exaggerated story. Think about it, if your goal is to garner the most views and shares, you may do anything to get them. Social media’s bias is for shares, not truth. Teach kids to question their sources of information and recognize the true nature of social media.
5. Distinguish outlets for emotion vs. information.
I believe it’s too easy to hide behind a screen when we have an emotional message to share. Screens are appropriate for information, not emotion. Content that will elicit emotion should be shared face to face. Similarly, legitimate news sources will tend to come across different (like face to face) rather than a tabloid with all of its sensationalism.
6. Stop hiding and lying.
Lying and exaggerating have become commonplace in our world today. The average American tells four lies a day, which amounts to 1,460 lies each year. And hyperbole is everywhere; the word “awesome” has lost its meaning because we describe everything that way. Why not let our “yes” be yes and our “no” be no?
Let’s exchange fake for honesty and truth.
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These image-based workbooks help today’s young adults:
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