Gen Z needs help telling fact from fiction

On TikTok, you’re likely to find restaurant recommendations, lip-syncing snippets, and false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue and that crisis actors faked the school shooting. Uvalde. TikTok, along with Instagram, is where Gen Z looks for information and entertainment. They often offer a blurry mix between reality and fiction.

The internet is how Gen Z becomes informed – and too often misinformed – about the world. Nearly 40% of this generation, young people born between the late 1990s and early 2000s, prefer to use TikTok and Instagram as search engines, according to internal data recently released by Google.

These platforms feature short videos, which is great for a new dance move or a fun meme. But they can be just as effective at spreading videos conveying misinformation and conspiracy theories. Just because Gen Z grew up with social media doesn’t mean they know how to evaluate the information they find there.

Our education system has been slow to respond, often providing students with outdated strategies for determining credibility online, such as lingering on a website’s “About” page or checking when information was published or displayed. . Analog strategies like these are the equivalent of teaching 16-year-olds to drive a Tesla by handing them a manual for a horse-drawn carriage. Education must meet students where they are. Like it or not, this address is now on social networks.

We can’t rely on social media platforms to solve the misinformation problem – they can’t even be trusted to monitor themselves.

An analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that 58% of TikTok videos relating to COVID-19 vaccines lacked warning banners, despite the company’s commitment to flagging vaccine-related content. Bad information always seems to find a way to sneak through the platform’s protections.

Media literacy that will empower younger generations must be more than an appendage to today’s school curricula. Teaching students to distinguish reliable information from inaccuracies or outright lies is too important to be left to individual discretion. In the information age, digital literacy should be the foundation of virtually everything schools teach.

We can’t stop Gen Z from relying on social media for information. Nor can we kid ourselves that a presentation by a teacher or the school librarian matches the scale of the misinformation challenge. If we want to reach young people today, we need to use the tools they can relate to – including TikTok videos – to teach the content we think is important. By doing so, we can hone students’ ability to identify misinformation.

Math lessons, for example, could be revamped to help students understand how algorithms organize the content they see on social media platforms. Teachers can clearly explain how the algorithms of TikTok and Instagram sacrifice credibility in order to keep users’ eyeballs glued to the screen.

Economics courses can help students understand the business models of platforms in our “attention economy” and how profit motives align with the promotion of viral misinformation.

English lessons could illustrate how small variations in search terms generate different results. Search “vaccines” on TikTok and you’ll be taken to information from the World Health Organization. Try “heavy metal vaccines” and you’ll find a slew of videos spouting false claims.

Curriculum transformation must include all areas of study. This is already happening in Illinois, where some innovative teachers are integrating digital literacy into core school subjects.

Young people today spend seven to eight hours a day online, or about 3,000 hours a year. The challenge of identifying misinformation online will not be solved with just one strategy. It will take a program overhaul to really help Gen Z tell fact from fiction on the platforms where they spend their time.

Sam Wineburg is a professor of education at Stanford University and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, where Nadav Ziv is a research associate.

Back To Top