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About-to-be voters struggle to tell fact from fiction, research shows

High school students are ill-equipped to judge the credibility of online content, leaving the next generation of voters vulnerable to misinformation ahead of the 2020 election, according to a new report by researchers at Stanford University.

The study, which evaluated the media literacy ability of a diverse group of more than 3,000 high school students in 14 states, paints a sad portrait about the state of American civic education, with potentially millions of prospective young voters incapable of telling fact from fiction.


The researchers administered six exercises intended to discern how well the students vetted the reliability of online content, a test they nearly universally failed. "The results — if they can be summarized in a word — are troubling," the report concludes.

Among the findings:

  • More than 96 percent of the students did not consider that ties to the fossil fuel industry might affect the credibility of a website on climate change.
  • Two-thirds couldn't tell the difference between a news story and an advertisement on Slate's homepage, even though the ad was clearly labeled as "sponsored content."
  • More than half believed a grainy video purporting to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries constituted "strong evidence" of voter fraud in the United States. The video was actually shot in Russia.

For each exercise, the researchers allowed students to open new tabs to do a web search to vet the content, but few actually did.

Only three of the 3,446 surveyed students, who were recruited to reflect the demographics of the country's high school population, bothered to track down the source of the ballot stuffing video, while only 4 percent of students did a simple search that would have revealed the climate change website was funded by fossil fuel companies.

The researchers hope the findings will spur investment in digital media literacy programs that can help young people better learn how to discern the credibility of online source material, a critical skill for an informed electorate.

"Reliable information is to civic health what proper sanitation and potable water are to public health," the researchers said. "A polluted information supply imperils our nation's civic health. We need high-quality digital literacy curricula, validated by rigorous research, to guarantee the vitality of American democracy."

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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