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Young people on: the rise of fake news

It appears that just about anybody can fall victim to fake news as this week the BBC apologised for quoting a parody twitter account of Zimbabwe’s ruling party ZanuPF in its reporting of the military takeover in Zimbabwe.

It was also revealed that the image of a Muslim woman walking by victims of the Westminster Bridge terror attack in March 2017, which fuelled a racist backlash across social media, was circulated by a troll account backed by the Russian government. 

As adults raise concerns over the integrity of what their children are reading online, we wanted to hear from young people themselves on what they think fake news is, what they’re doing to manage it and, most importantly, if they’re concerned about it.

By Yusuf Tamanna

While some adults may think young people aren’t critical enough of the content they read online, we found the opposite to be true.

Half of our respondents easily cited that Donald Trump and the US presidential election involved fake news and others went into greater detail about what constitutes dubious content. Megan, 20, said it was ‘articles that disregard facts in favour of an agenda’ and Lydia, 17, said fake news is a 'misrepresentation of events or data'.

 ‘Stupid people will believe anything they read, and that scares me’ – Tom, 17

The big question was whether young people are genuinely worried about fake news as part of their digital experience. An overwhelming 88% of respondents said they were concerned about having a reliable news source. Megan, 20, said it creates confusion, which can have a big impact on the wider world, offering the Brexit vote as a prime example. However, Mabel, 15, said that unlike her peers, she wasn’t concerned about fake news: ‘I can check for myself if stories are reliable or not, most of the time anyway.’

Despite these worries over reliability, all the young people we spoke to said they get their news from social media, including Twitter and Snapchat, or apps, such as BBC News and The Economist. Of everyone asked, no one mentioned reading the newspaper or watching the news on TV.

How to spot fake news

When asked for advice to pass on to their peers to help them avoid falling for the trappings of fake news, all of them suggested being critical of the URL link or considering if the story had appeared elsewhere. Solomon, 16, Maddie, 21 and Mabel, 15, all said to look at the sources of the story and check if it’s being reported in the same way across other news outlets.

‘Don’t trust anything on Facebook’ – Mabel, 15

Olly, 16, advised his peers to look up the information before accepting it as fact and sharing it across social media. Similarly Max, 19, said once he has the sources of a news story he does his own investigation by trying to find the original story so he can decide for himself if what is being reported is true or not.

Looking at the bigger picture

To see what else young people can and should be doing to protect themselves, Parent Zone spoke to Dr Phillip Seargeant, senior lecturer in applied linguistics at The Open University.

‘The underlying issue here is that all news reporting will take a particular perspective on something and that sometimes the nature of this perspective can tip over into bias’, he said.

‘So, while some stories may not be obviously false, they usually take a particular stance on an issue.’

Dr Seargeant advised young people to adopt a healthy level of scepticism when reading or seeing anything happen around the world: ‘The more young people understand how news reports are made and circulated, the better chance they have of weeding out the false from the true, and understanding why a particular paper or website is taking the particular perspective it is.’

Further reading

Fake News: who can you trust? – First News editor Nicky Cox offers tips to parents on what their child should look out for when reading the news online.