Dangerous Minds

A new study finds that an alarming number of young people are too trusting of what they read online. But is there anything we can do about it?

GOU YIGE/AFP/Getty Images
GOU YIGE/AFP/Getty Images

Fears about the corruption of young, innocent minds always accompany new technology. Socrates used to worry that the written word would promote forgetfulness. When the first printed books rolled off Johannes Gutenberg’s press, many thought they would overwhelm young minds with too much information.

This iron law has been more than satisfied by the Internet. It has liberated and enriched society incalculably, but just as in Gutenberg’s day, concerns about the dark side of the latest bright, new technology are growing: child safety, ubiquitous pornography, data-sharing, cyberbullying, online radicalization, and so on. Nicholas Carr, author of the recently published book The Shallows, even thinks it could be rewiring our brains, making us superficial and unreflective, as we restlessly flit from site to site.

A report released last week by the British think tank Demos takes a different line. It argues that the Internet’s greatest strength — free access to unprecedented amounts of unregulated information — can also be asphyxiating. Too many young people do not know what to believe online, and as a result they are influenced by information they probably ought to discard. The era of mass, unmediated information needs to be attended by a new educational paradigm based on a renewal of critical, skeptical thought fit for the online age.

The sheer amount of material at our fingertips today is unfathomable, like trying to imagine the number of stars in the universe. When we fire up a browser, we can choose from more than 250 million websites and 150 million blogs, and the numbers are growing. A whole day’s worth of YouTube footage is uploaded every minute. The online content created last year alone was several million times more than is contained in every single book ever written. Much of this content consists of trustworthy journalism, niche expertise, and accurate information. But there is an equal measure of mistakes, half-truths, propaganda, misinformation, and general nonsense.

Trying to separate the information wheat from the disinformation chaff has always been difficult — the Greeks were at least as exercised about it as we are. But the Internet makes it more difficult because it throws up novel challenges that require at least some ration of technical savvy.

As the traditional peer-reviewed journal and specialist anthology are replaced by Wikipedia-style collective-wisdom editing (or, frequently, nothing at all), there are fewer obvious mediators of quality to help spot the impostors. For many young people, search-engine results act as a substitute: According to our study, a third think Google organizes its results according to reliability (it doesn’t). Not only do different search engines throw up very different results, but "search-engine optimization" is now an entire industry, dedicated to getting companies higher up the rankings. The provenance of a lot of content is either anonymous or can be faked — remember the "Gay Girl in Damascus" fiasco? As a result, many young people use aesthetics as a sign of trustworthiness, which isn’t particularly smart as professional-looking websites can now be pulled together in minutes. Dozens of nefarious sites are designed specifically to appear trustworthy, including Holocaust-denial sites dressed with the trappings of genuine historical research. The website, for example, purports to present "A True Historical Examination" of Martin Luther King Jr., aimed specifically at students writing essays for Martin Luther King Day essay contests. The website is a veiled attack on the U.S. civil rights movement and is quietly hosted by the white-supremacist group Stormfront.

The triumph of the visual also manifests itself in the explosion of video content — especially since YouTube’s inception in 2005. Many conspiracy and propaganda videos mask manipulation or poor research with arresting music and attractive editing, playing on our weakness as creatures of emotion. The Internet may exacerbate other human fallibilities too, by helping us drift into groupthink by serving up remarkably personalized search options and mono-view chat forums, a point deftly made by Eli Pariser in his recent book, The Filter Bubble.

All this lies behind the report’s main finding: Teenagers facing this avalanche of data are struggling to deal with it. They are often unable to find the information they are looking for or trust the first thing they do. They do not fact-check what they read and are unable to recognize online bias and propaganda — and teachers are worried about the effect this is having. Around half of the teachers polled for the study had encountered arguments about conspiracy theories with their students (such as those surrounding the 9/11 attacks), and the same proportion report pupils bringing dubious Internet-based content into the classroom.

Today’s teachers deserve sympathy because the speed of change has been dizzying and education curricula are as squeezed as they are. The Internet was barely a twinkle in the eye of World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee when some of them were trained. Now might be the first time in history when young people know more about the primary source of information than those charged with educating them.

But education must keep pace with society’s turbulence, not vice versa. It needs to be modeled to suit an age of mass, unmediated information, in which censorship is neither possible nor desirable. Traditional critical-thinking skills, such as recognizing authorship bias or verifying sources, are a staple of Western education. But a distinct online component must be added. At a minimum, students need to learn how search engines really work, how videos and websites are made, how online propaganda can be spotted, and how personal data are stored and shared. These are now fundamental to children’s lives and well-being — but none of it gets taught.

Kids won’t always get it right, and neither do adults. Earlier this year, the now-defunct News of the World was forced to pay damages to a soccer player after reporting an apparent infidelity, which was in fact a Photoshopped hoax. Censorship is neither desirable nor possible. The answer is to give children a bit more web savvy to help them be more discerning and less vulnerable to some of the rabbit holes and pitfalls that stalk them at two clicks. Because at two clicks also awaits the miracle of unlimited knowledge and opportunity Socrates could never have imagined.

Jamie Bartlett is the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and the author of "Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World."

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