- A program from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network, is training Gen Z middle- and high-schoolers to spot and debunk viral misinformation online.
- Misinformation, or false and inaccurate news portrayed as fact, has risen across social media platforms in the wake of the 2020 election, the coronavirus pandemic, and the nationwide protests.
- MediaWise’s fact-checkers warn that anyone — regardless of age, political affiliation, or access to technology — can succumb to the kind of falsified information that spreads on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
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From the 2020 election to the surging pandemic and nationwide protests, a perfect storm of conditions has caused misinformation to thrive online across social media platforms, at times leading to deadly consequences. But, an army of teens is rising to combat misinformation. Trained through Poynter’s MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network, they have learned how to discern fact from fiction online.
The teen fact-checkers warn that misinformation typically provokes a strong emotional reaction from its consumers — and, combined with falsehood and inaccuracy, the false “facts” only serve to stoke long-held divisions and fuel political polarization. Often defined as digital natives, these Gen Z-ers view it as their responsibility to spread awareness about the dangers of believing what you read online.
Poynter’s MediaWise Teen Fact-Checking Network, targeted toward middle- and high-schoolers, teaches Gen Z teens how to spot and debunk misinformation online. With the help of the Google News Initiative, the MediaWise program has trained over 100 teens since the program began in 2018. Together, they’ve produced more than 400 fact-checks in line with editorial standards from the International Fact-Checking Network.
In July, MediaWise fact-checker Thea Barrett, 18, came across an infographic-style image that quoted US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as saying that “only 0.02%” of K-12 children would die if they went back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic. The post’s point: 0.02% still meant 14,740 children would die. When Barrett first saw the post on her feed, she immediately believed it. She didn’t share it on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook where it was rapidly spreading, but for days talked about it with friends and family.
Then she fact-checked it for MediaWise.
“No part of it was true,” she said. “Every single part of it was false. And I just believed it because it spiked emotion in me, and it agreed with my reality, but I didn’t even think about the fact that those numbers were made up. It was a false quote.”
As Barrett and outlets such as Snopes and USA Today found, not only was the 14,740 number incorrect (0.02% of total US K-12 students would actually be about 11,000 children), but so was the entire statement attributed to DeVos. Despite there being no record of DeVos ever making that claim, the piece of misinformation went viral — it wasn’t just shared by Gen Z-ers, but also by teachers, students, and concerned citizens across generations.
MediaWise’s fact-checking program trains teens to look out for widely circulated claims like this one. According to Katy Byron, program manager at MediaWise, the three most common types of online misinformation come in the forms of manipulated videos and photos (including what’s commonly referred to as “cheap fakes”), manipulated infographics, and screenshots of content from one platform that get cross-posted to another platform and manipulated along the way. The network encourages its fact-checkers to ask three critical questions when they encounter any information online, no matter how reputable the source may seem: who is behind the information, what is the evidence, and what do other sources say.
It’s not just teens who believe false information shared online. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2016, about a quarter of Americans say they have shared inaccurate or false news online, whether they were aware of it or not. In fact, a misconception about misinformation is that it’s only an older generation that succumbs to inaccurate or out-of-context claims online.
But according to Byron, “a lot of people assume that teenagers — because they’re digitally savvy and grew up with the internet — are better at identifying misinformation. But that is not true.” MediaWise believes that regardless of one’s generation, upbringing, or level of access to technology, media literacy is something that must be taught.
According to Barrett, what was so effective about the false Betsy DeVos statement was that it sparked a strong emotional reaction in those who believed and shared it, and it confirmed their existing beliefs by providing facts and numbers — however untrue they turned out to be — about the danger of reopening schools. Barrett believes that because misinformation triggers emotion and stirs confirmation bias, it can fuel the deeply polarized divide between political parties, or anyone of opposing viewpoints.
“Misinformation really does just start to seep into our communities, and so I think that plays a huge role in causing that divide to grow. Because if there’s already a gap, and then you’re putting false information out to grow that gap, and you’re adding a lot of uncertainty or a lot of emotion into that,” she said, “of course that’s going to make two parties separate even more.”
For one of MediaWise’s current teen fact-checkers, Bridgette Adu-Wadier, 17, misinformation feels exacerbated by a fast-paced news climate where consumers devour information without stopping to think critically.
“Media literacy involves knowing how to fact-check information on your own, as well as being aware of how the media shapes public opinion, especially through bias,” she said. “I think a lot of people overlook how impactful headlines can be and how they can shape people’s perceptions and prejudices, especially involving reports on police brutality, and how they describe people of color involved in those events.”
Adu-Wadier views it as her responsibility, and everyone’s, to take control of their news consumption by slowing down and fact-checking. A self-described history nerd, she believes that “misinformation is so harmful because at a certain point, this present that we’re living in is going to be in those history textbooks that students read. Facts are important because they fuel history as well as journalism. And facts help combat misinformation and biases that can keep people from understanding the bigger picture.”
Barrett and Adu-Wadier have used their training to help others understand that just because something is portrayed as news online, doesn’t mean it’s true. Although it’s one small corner of the internet they’re shaping, they’re hopeful that it will lead to lasting change.
“We’re not changing the world right here, but we are slowly making people more aware of the information they’re putting out into the world. And that is how we stop the spread of misinformation,” Barrett said. “I believe that it’s on all of us to be critical thinkers. And so, I am hopeful that one day we will be at a point where we don’t have to stress about the amount of misinformation in our world.”