There is a general concern in western democracies about the influence of so-called ‘fake news’, which is seen to have played a prevalent role in recent elections. Parliament have even published a report this week on the topic. While arguably it’s nothing new, falling into an old tradition of mud-slinging and propaganda, it is conceived of as a new phenomena because of the efficacy social media provides for spreading ‘alternative facts’ . A lazy assumption has then grown up around ‘fake news’ that because it is associated with social media then it must be most prevalent amongst the young. This is predicated on the ludicrously outmoded idea that the internet – that has been ubiquitous for the last 20 years, and pervades most aspects of our lives – is a youthful indulgence.
However, recent research that has tried to look directly at the problem has identified that age is the singlest biggest factor in predicting who will credulously spread fake news. With people over 65 the worst offenders – 7 times more likely to share a false story than 18-29 year olds. The research posits two reasons for this – cognitive decline and, more interestingly, a lack of digital literacy skills.
Again, it’s often assumed that ‘digital natives’ – those who grew up with the internet – are the ones particularly in need of information and digital literacy skills. Yet, those who have grown up in this predominantly digital environment are probably better placed to cope with its nuance. Meanwhile those who have had to adapt from an analogue world are still trying to place authority in news websites in the way they may once have done in print newspapers. (Although historically print newspapers have not been immune from indulging in their own biases to the point of fake news).
A recent BBC survey found that children across the world are worried about their ability to spot what is true and what isn’t on the internet. This should be seen as very encouraging when held against the research on older people’s attitudes. A recognition that this is an issue to work on, and an understanding that this will be a lifelong skill, underpins the idea that being able to critically navigate the digital environment is a fundamental skill that it is right to conceive of as a literacy.
By Peter Barr, Liaison Librarian Arts and Humanities.
Picture from our Fake News Game. Please have a go!