If Facebook thinks it can outsource the detection of fake news to its users (and thereby avoid accepting editorial responsibility) then Stanford University has some bad news for it. Over the past 18 months the university’s history education group has been testing the ability of 7,800 “digital natives” (ie at middle school, high school and college students) in 12 states to judge the credibility of online information.
The results, in the words of the researchers, are “dismaying”, “bleak” and “a threat to democracy”. The students were duped again and again. They couldn’t tell fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources or distinguish ads from articles. More than 80% of middle-school (11- to 13-year-old) children thought that “sponsored content” was a real news story. They were suckers for professionally produced and attractive web pages, and a fluent and polished “about” page was enough to persuade many that the site was authoritative.
And when asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of information on two websites, one published by the 66,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, the other by the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative fringe group that broke with the main organisation in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples, more than half of the Stanford undergraduates in the study concluded that the second group was “more reliable”. So: back to the drawing board, Mr Zuckerberg.