A study by College Reaction carried out for Axios concludes that members of Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2010, are more likely to see fake news for what it is because they apply more context, nuance and skepticism when consuming information.
As a business school professor who has been teaching Generation Z for a few years now, my experience suggests otherwise, and that assuming that this cohort is somehow immune or, as the article claims, possess some sort of “innate superiority” is a big mistake, comparable to the now discredited idea of digital natives.
Believing that young people are somehow imbued with greater awareness of how the digital world works will only perpetuate the problem, because it implies there’s no need to teach them how to make the most of the internet. The simple truth is that no generation is more or less prepared than the previous one for anything: there are no genetic differences between one generation and another, evolution moves slowly, and changes to the species come through mutations that occur by chance and somehow condition the reproductive success of some individuals with respect to others. In other words, it is just flat wrong to think that Generation Z’s genetics are different to those of its parents or grandparents. That’s not how genetics work.
It is true that Generation Z was born into a world in which the internet already existed and so will be familiar with it from an early age, which in turn might influence experience-based learning processes, as the genius Randall Munroe pointed out in one of his comic strips. But this experience produces very unequal results and, above all, not sufficiently structured or formalized: it is possible that the members of Generation Z are less likely to believe hoaxes or fake news than their parents and grandparents, but that does not mean at all that they are somehow “immunized” against them. In fact, in discussions in my classes with Generation Z students I am constantly confronted with myths, fake news or misinterpreted headlines, and I am constantly having to explain reality to them.
If learning how to verify, fact-check and use critical judgment does not become a central part of the educational process, then a great many members of this and every generation will, in all likelihood grow up believing a lot of the fake news and garbage circulating online. Finland’s decision to formalize the teaching of these skills, instead of assuming that children are somehow “born ready” seems to be working well, and should serve as a model for other countries. Vulnerability to fake news depends not only on age, but to a large extent on our online experience, willingness to invest effort in fact checking, and other factors, such as hearing the same lies repeated over and over again.
A balanced diet of information and a systematic and structured knowledge of the processes of viral transmission or of the profiles that tend to spread false information are fundamental if we are to expose fake news for what it is. Social networks lacking any kind of ethical principles, like Facebook — which puts its metrics above applying mechanisms to stop the spread of fake news — are extremely dangerous, as we have seen in Myanmar, Nigeria and many other countries, and as we are now unfortunately about to see in Ethiopia. In this sense, young people may learn more quickly than their elders, but they are still exposed to fake news, which is increasingly being spread through sophisticated strategies that require properly formalized learning processes.
Let’s learn from previous mistakes: young people are not “digital natives”, and thinking that because they are young, we don’t need to worry about educating them to use their critical faculties, will only produce “digital orphans”, condemned to learn by trial and error, and even then, only if they really show a will and an interest in learning. Social networks operate in a specific context with their own rules, rules that are fundamental to know and understand. Focusing education on the development of critical thinking is the only alternative we have to avoid turning fake news into a legacy that will be perpetuated by the next generation.