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Literacy for a Digital World

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April 6, 2018

By Carrie Mae Wack

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently conducted the largest study of fake news to date. It found Twitter users are 70 percent more likely to re-tweet a false story than a true one, and fabricated stories reach 1,500 views six times faster. Even more alarming is a majority of adults in the United States get their news from social media, while 59 percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked, according to the Pew Research Center. You may wonder why people fall easily for false stories, especially with the ability to fact check stories with a few clicks.

An obvious reason is lack of digital literacy. Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. Fake news preys on people’s lack of digital illiteracy.

No one can deny we are in a technological age where children learn to use tablets before they can string together a sentence. Most teens can post a photo to multiple social media platforms with a few clicks, taps, and swipes on a smartphone. But while almost everyone knows how to conduct a web search, few know how to select the best, most accurate, relevant, and timely link.

Fake news is a wholly or partially false story designed specifically to look like credible information, making it difficult to decipher fact from fiction. And it is rapidly spreading across social media and news feeds. Your political affiliation doesn’t matter. There are fake news stories created by liberal and conservative websites. Unfortunately, the abilities to distinguish fact from opinion, and fact from fiction, are waning.

A recent Stanford Graduate School of Education study found most students from middle school through college struggled to distinguish between paid advertising and news reporting, credible and unreliable articles, and overlooked clear evidence of bias in the claims they encountered.

It’s not just digital natives who are struggling; adults encounter the same challenge.

On average, there are 1.4 billion daily active users of Facebook, according to the company. How many of those users are clicking on fake news, and worse yet, reposting and sharing it with others? How many of those users are falling for clickbait time and time again? Our ability to wield technology does not mean we wield it well. Digital nativism does not equate to digital literacy.

So what can we do? We need to provide learning tools and educational opportunities for young people and adults alike to learn how to best use technology, how to spot fake news and clickbait, and how to keep themselves digitally safe. Public libraries and schools are great places to start. Both entities have tools and resources available to assist students and adults. Talk with friends and family: What is appropriate use of technology? How do you identify something as a fabricated story? What measures do you take to keep your digital information safe? The most important solution is to ask questions, be curious, and dig a little deeper into questionable news articles that pop up in your Twitter feed.

Sharpen up your digital literacy with these resources:

Can you spot fake news? Test your ability, here.

Is it true? Check out these unbiased fact-checking websites:

Snopes

Independent, self-sufficient entity wholly owned by its operators who investigate rumors:

FactCheck.org

Non-partisan, non-profit that acts as a consumer advocate for voters. A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania:

Politifact

Independent fact-checking website created by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. PolitiFact has won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting

Read: The Fact Checker’s guide for detecting fake news