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Youth, Fake News, and the Age of Misinformation Technology

Youth And the Age of Misinformation Technology by Ezra Beren

“History is a set of lies agreed upon”

– Napoleon Bonaparte.

This famous quote cannot be any more accurate, especially in this age of information and misinformation – where fake news spreads like wildfire and undermines the integrity of news and information we dearly treasure.

While real news is frightening, fake news keeps me awake at night, especially with how easy it is for our youth to be targeted and how such malicious attacks can mold their vulnerable and innocent minds. After the campaigns against fake news six years ago, one would think that we would all be tech and media savvy. How wrong we are.

More frightening is how fake news can easily pass as real news. A study by Standford about how fake news affects the youth revealed that 80% of middle schoolers view paid content as real news. A survey by Common Sense Media revealed that 56% of children fell they may not distinguish between real and fake. 

One of the main reasons is that a growing number of applications are created to make editing easy – making it easier to deceive people, even the most intelligent and discerning audience.

Additionally, smartphones are getting cheaper and more accessible, resulting in kids having easier access to social media sites. Social media has become a digital hangout place, a bulletin board, and a newsroom all in one that it has become easier to share anything, newsworthy or not. A survey in 2019 revealed that 54% of teens get their news from social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Another survey by Common Sense Media showed that approximately 31% of kids who shared something online later found it was fake.

These social media networks have become a place where people, especially the young, value themselves based on the number of engagements they receive. Sadly, fake news does get them more interactions – it is emotionally charged and biased, and people tend to respond more to articles that are catchy and engaging. Fake news is designed to get the most engagement – the most likes and shares. Partner it with a person’s need for acknowledgment and gratification, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Fake news instigators prey on these vulnerabilities and loopholes to spread even more fake news, regardless of purpose or intent.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation

Fake news is a form of misinformation; it is a form of false information that is spread without the intent to mislead readers. One common example of this is a misconception. On the other hand, disinformation is where the intent is to disinform the reader. The instigator wants to spread propaganda or knowingly and intentionally manipulate the public’s opinion.

The main difference between the two is the intent. Misinformation is an error in reporting, while disinformation is a malicious intent to spread wrong information. While both are alarming, disinformation is the type of news we must all be wary of.

Since the intent to disinform is present, these sources try to make it appear that their article is legitimate. They may copy the format and layout of a legitimate news website, create a similar domain or URL name, or even post legitimate news and publish half-truths to confuse the audience.

How Misinformation Becomes Real

Think of misinformation as a cycle. Suppose a website published an article and another article with more authority picks it up. Then the original publisher of the article cites the authority website as the source of information, and other authority websites pick it up. The fake news then becomes entangled and buried to the point that it becomes harder for even intelligent readers to determine the article’s legitimacy. 

This article is then posted on social media sites and gets shared repeatedly, influencing the decision of readers and viewers. People believe it because of its catchy title and engaging content, thinking that the article deeply echoes their point of view or contradicts what they believe in. 

Thoughts are like water to a seed – the more people feed it, the more it water it, the more it grows. 

How Do We Stop Fake News

The short answer is that we cannot, but we are doing better in stopping its spread.

The good (and real) news is that the population is becoming more aware of fake news and how it undermines democracy, authorities, and societies. More and more states are passing laws mandating school systems to teach social media literacy to youngsters and teens. There are afterschool programs teaching students the effects of fake news and how to spot them. And as children become more perceptive and skeptical, so is their desire not to be controlled and fooled by these outlets.

But is it enough? What about the role of tech companies to curb the spread of misinformation? Some argue that forcing tech companies, such as Meta or Twitter, to control content is restricting Americans’ right to freedom of speech. At the same time, some see it as these companies’ moral obligation to their users.

While conflicting points of view remain, one thing is certain; misinformation undermines justice. We can only be just when we give what is due to those who deserve them. Our responsibility is to give people the truth, no matter how boring it is, because only in truth do we form opinions and take actions that we can completely call our own and are not manipulated by others.

We should not wait for someone to “save” us. We can take action, and we should. It is up to us parents and guardians to help and teach our kids the importance of facts, real news, integrity, and justice. It is our responsibility to raise a well-informed generation, for the things we do now will be the history of tomorrow.

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