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CT teenagers learn how to spot misinformation online

Students learn about misinformation online from WSHU at Sacred Heart University's Discovery Center.
Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU
Students learn about misinformation online from WSHU at Sacred Heart University Discovery Science Center and Planetarium.

Navigating between truth and myth is a difficult task for all, including young people.

Misinformation has been a growing problem since the start of the internet, but the rate of changing technology has exacerbated it in recent years. Gather a handful of teenagers in a room and ask them about the topic you might be greeted with blank stares. But taking the time to hear about their personal experiences reveals that they know more than some give them credit for.

Because in a small classroom in the basement of a science museum, teenagers from area high schools met to talk about their digital world. From the latest memes and TikTok videos shared by peers to their fears about artificial intelligence and their digital footprint — these teens have a lot to say.

“A lot of people consume media without thinking about it hard. Just, ‘Oh, I just saw this… because it's online, it can't be that serious.’ They’re not being naive, [but] you don’t know if that’s legitimate,” said Wayne Louis, a high school sophomore in Bridgeport, Conn.

Throughout the last school year, WSHU worked with the Sacred Heart University Discovery Science Center and Planetarium and a few high school students in the area about media literacy and misinformation. Students learned from journalists about how to interpret digital media and responsibly engage with others in digital discourse. They identified how to spot misinformation and use critical thinking along with digital tools to debunk false claims. WSHU also spent time listening to the students about their personal experience online and their thoughts on the current digital landscape.

WSHU's Jeniece Roman teaches students about misinformation at Sacred Heart University's Discovery Science Center and Planetarium.
Eda Uzunlar/WSHU
WSHU's Jeniece Roman teaches students about misinformation at Sacred Heart University's Discovery Science Center and Planetarium.

Wayne said for people his age, serious consequences can come from fake news.

While adults are also susceptible to misinformation online, many are worried about the long-term effects the internet and its contents could have on young people. Lawmakers in Connecticut have been making efforts to emphasize stronger online safety for young people for years, and misinformation across all platforms has only become more prevalent.

“It can be harmful… even the littlest thing – it can spiral out of control, and it can become serious,” Wayne said.

At the start of the workshop series, the students seemed to be apathetic in their interaction with digital media. They expressed a feeling of powerlessness to the systems set and doubted their influence. They were aware of misinformation online and did a decent job of spotting things that didn't feel right even before they were given the misinformation tools. They had an idea of the breadth of misinformation at the start of the workshop series.

“Misinformation really preys upon people who are not engaging with the subject matter and just don't, either they don't recognize something's fishy, or they recognize it. And they don't want to continue to pursue that thought,” high school senior Dylan Padua said.

However, they are still teenagers. They are still vulnerable.

“Younger generations need to understand digital media because it shapes how they communicate, learn, consume information, and communicate with the world. The internet allows adolescents to think critically about the content that is viewed since much is misleading,” said Olivia Ruszkowski, a high school freshman in Fairfield, Conn.

'How to' Guide on Misinformation

Despite the daunting digital landscape, the effort to combat misinformation online is achievable. Much like reading literacy, digital literacy includes the use of critical thinking skills to help interpret what is being said. Anyone can engage with digital media if they understand the steps needed to assess the content. The students use these steps to explore whether a piece of content contains misinformation.

  1. How does the post make you feel?

    If it invokes fear, a general sense of urgency, or unease or something seems off, it’s a sign to dig deeper into what’s being said.

  2. What is the message?

    Find out what claim is being made. Make sure that the post is not satire or a personal opinion before believing the claim. Is this a sponsored post or advertisement? Determine the context and intention of the post before moving forward. An image or video might be legitimate but the context given in the description can be false or misleading.

  3. Dig Deeper at the Poster Who are they?

    What are their credentials? Look at the user and account bio to learn more. Making observations about the account’s other posts, links or affiliations they reference. Example: A person who is trying to sell water filters, might not be the most reliable source to learn if your drinking water is safe.

  4. Fact check the claim.

    Sometimes a simple search will reveal evidence. Certain misinformation claims have a tendency to circulate online every few years — and have already been debunked. Use tools like reverse image search to find the source of an image. Non-partisan fact checking websites can also be useful. Images or videos online can either be digitally altered, fabricated or have deceptive editing. Always begin with consulting primary sources and search for the original sources of the document, image or video.

  5. Consult the experts.

    If someone online makes a health claim, see what organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization or others say. If a fitness or wellness influencer makes a claim, see what certified dietitians say. Avoid sources like Wikipedia, opinion makers, or social media posts individuals that don’t cite their sources.

  6. When in doubt, doubt.

    If you are not sure something is true, don't share it. Avoid leaving comments or engaging with the content longer than necessary. This kind of engagement impacts the algorithm and might do more harm in spreading misinformation.

Other resources for fact-checking misinformation: These tools from the Poynter Institute, Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Google News Initiative allow an audience to see what images have been altered or manipulated. Here is a quiz to practice spotting misinformation.

About the Project: The students participated in several workshops on digital media literacy and misinformation. They learned to think critically when engaging with news websites, social media, and other online content. They learned to spot misinformation, cite evidence that debunks false claims, and find better expert sources. The students used the framework to identify posts online that might contain misinformation. They outline examples of social media posts and claims made that proved to be either false or misleading.

Dylan Padua is a senior at Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center.
Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU
Dylan Padua.

Meet the Students

Dylan Padua is a senior at Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center.

Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU

Dylan focused on recent developments in technology that can make fact-checking even media like imagery essential to getting the story right. “Currently, with just how much has changed in such a short amount of time with the prevalence of deep fakes, AI, [and] doctored or altered media, you should always check where the information is actually coming from,” Dylan said. “One of the worst things that you can do is to continue to try and spread that information as true.”

Wayne Louis is a sophomore at the Aerospace/Hydrospace Engineering & Physical Science Magnet School on the Fairchild Wheeler campus in Bridgeport.

Wayne said he learned about easy and important tools to help identify different types of misinformation across mediums. “Whether it just be a simple search up or reverse-image searching. It certainly helps one identify, “Oh, is this legit, or is this completely misleading. It's not even close... It's not something to be taken lightly.”

Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU

Olivia Roszkowski is a freshman at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

Olivia shared a few different ways to make sure information online is accurate. “...Always fact-check your sources, and make sure you have a primary source. Ask someone trusted if they might have any information on it.”

Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU

Ivana Rajkumar is a freshman at the Biotechnology Research and Zoological Sciences Magnet School on the Fairchild Wheeler campus.

Ivana took a special interest in understanding why someone makes content for social media, and what they might be promoting – even if not everything that’s said about a product is true. “I really look at how [influencers] are presenting their information,” Ivana said. “Whether it's based on their personal opinion, or they actually do their own individual research.”

Student examples of misinformation

The students found a few examples of misinformation they found on their corners of the internet, and got down to debunking them. Here are their assessments.

See more: The Strange Allure of Extreme Alpha Male Influencers

See more: De-Influencing has Taken over TikTok, What Will Become of Influencer Marketing?

Case Study – L’Oréal’s Inauthentic Marketing Campaign with TikTok Beauty Influencer Mikayla Nogueira

Optimism in the face of digital uncertainty

Despite being born into the digital media age, social media isn’t as easy for Gen Z to navigate as older generations give them credit for. They too can fall victim to misinformation online. But they face an entirely different challenge than their predecessors do when it comes to the content they interact with online. Where Gen X and the Millennial generation had to distinguish false claims or altered images, Gen Z is now faced with even more challenges.

Now there are deep fakes, digitally altered images, and extremely polarized yet powerful media entities. Dylan mentioned that since the verification system on social media platforms switched to a subscription-based model, it is more difficult at first glance to see which are credible. This reality of the layers behind misinformation can make it feel like navigating digital spaces is an uphill battle.

Wayne Louis
Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU
Wayne Louis

“Don't trust everything. If you see something online, don't immediately trust it,” Wayne added. Look into it like Whether it be using different methods of you know, research or you know. Generally like, if you can tell if it's a straight up lie, then just don't and then tell someone else that might be interested in that kind of stuff. Don't like, Look,don't bother,”

Despite all this, their attitude towards the state of the digital landscape as is, remained unchanged. These young people are optimistic about sharing the tools and information they learned with their peers. They had a deeper understanding of what to expect when it comes to misinformation online and even offered solutions not previously covered in the workshops.

Young people are looking towards older generations not to remove them from the digital discourse online, but to teach them the tools in order to survive it. Although the efforts being made for the safety of children online can be beneficial, let's teach them how to manage in the meantime.

Dylan Padua.
Eda Uzunlar/WSHU
Dylan Padua.

Dylan said sometimes the best way to deal with misinformation is to simply ignore it. He said sometimes people intentionally make false claims to increase engagement on their posts.

“Even if you know, it's blatantly wrong, don't try and add to that interaction that they want,” Dylan said. “If you see someone has already pointed out, like, the false information that they're presenting, don't you don't need to like, add to that. If it's correct, because that's just beneficial to the creator.

“Because that's why so many news outlets are using really, really shocking titles, they want that engagement. So just don't give it to them,” Dylan added.

Jeniece Roman is a reporter with WSHU, who is interested in writing about Indigenous communities in southern New England and Long Island, New York.
Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.
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