Like everyone in today’s topsy-turvy world, young people are struggling to separate fact from fiction. Fake news has become a catchall phrase that encompasses a wide range of communication and content — everything from items intended to mislead to satire to honest mistakes to things people simply disagree with. It’s a big problem, especially for teens who are in the process of forming their maps of the media world. In this environment, the worst things brands and marketers can do is to further confuse the situation by producing and promoting false content themselves.
Because the term fake news is so loosy-goosy, some may find it hard to quantify the actual scope of the problem. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that have stepped up to the plate to explain how much trouble we are actually in. Last year, Stanford University published a cheery little survey, “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Online Civic Reasoning.” The research is based on responses by more than 7,800 students, ranging from middle school to college. Let me just say that the results paint a pretty grim picture.
Students at all grade and age levels had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. They were unable to correctly identify advertising — and especially native advertising — from genuine news stories. They were not able to discern the differences between news and opinion. Images — without any context — were likely to be deemed real, relevant and trustworthy. Sadly, none of this should come as any surprise. We live in a media culture that has taken one step after another to debase itself and the consequences are serious.
It’s easy to fall back to the election and try to take some lesson from it as to how the rallying cry of fake news has fractured media. While that’s true, it’s only the culmination of a path we’ve long been on. When fact and fiction, rumors and truth become conflated, not only is it difficult to make sense of things but the problem goes deeper — even genuine news sources become less trusted. No arbiter exists in this mess we’ve created.
As terrible as it is for adults, many of whom were educated in the pre-digital world, to become unmoored from reality, it’s much worse for today’s teens. And that makes it bad for all of us.
Imagine not having the critical thinking skills to evaluate information. Imagine only being able to accept information at its face value with no ability to dig deeper to get enough details to put that information into context for evaluation. Read the executive summary of Stanford study. Imagine that the students included are presented with information — any information — and are asked to judge it. The fact is most will not be able to make sense of it — yet they will be making decisions based on the available information.
While non-entertainment information is dragging down trust, brands and advertisers are adding their own mischief into the mix. Volkswagen with the diesel emissions scandal, Activia’s “special ingredients,” DeVry University with its inflated graduate placement rates. So many more. All of it absorbed at a time when young people are getting themselves grounded in understanding and evaluating media.
Every lie that is told, every rumor presented as fact, every claim that false — all of these things chip, chip, chip away at people’s ability to understand and assess information. Even worse, you end up with people who simply don’t even care. For whom all of this stuff — facts, news, details, etc. — are just so many distractions that all just suck anyway.
If you have the occasion to connect and engage with teens you have to — have to — do it clearly and honestly. The more junk they are exposed to, the harder it becomes for them to care. If you lie and mislead you, will end up with customers that are uncertain and distrustful. Is that what you want? You may think, “I can take advantage of this situation to puff myself up, to tear someone else down,” that you can do these things without consequences. Hubris runs deep, my friend, but there’s no protection against an ill-informed person acting on assumptions.
Why does all this matter and what does it have to do with teens? In 20 years, today’s teens will presumably be in positions of responsibility. Will they be prepared? Will they have the critical thinking skills to make sound judgements? Based on where we are today it’s hard to image in the situation getting any better in the years to come. Comforting.