Published within the British Journal of Developmental Psychology is a study that reveals that kids are prime targets for fake news.
One word … “Yikes!”.
Titled “Measuring adolescents’ beliefs in conspiracy theories: Development and validation of the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire” the open access paper reveals that a team of researchers created and then validated what they term the Adolescent Conspiracy Beliefs Questionnaire (ACBQ). This opens up a new door and enables researchers to begin to understand how such beliefs can change over a lifespan by also including kids.
If indeed kids are embracing conspiracy theories, then what can we do about that?
First, let’s cover a few basics.
What exactly does the term “Conspiracy Theory” mean?
It is surprisingly a rather broad term.
Claims can range from the truly weird and whacky stuff that only a slim minority would embrace. For example, the thought that world is flat and NASA, along with every airline pilot, is hiding that, or the belief that many influential world leaders are really shape shifting alien lizards, (“Hello David Icke“, waves).
There are also the more familiar conspiracies that vast numbers of people are ensnared by. For example, the Government is… spying on us, lying to us, manipulating us, etc…
Right there is perhaps where you thought, “but that is really true, they are”.
Is this something you know and have verified personally because you happen to work in R division at the NSA, or do you simply accept this to be true?
Ask yourself why you think this. Is it something you are 100% sure about or do you simply consider it to be a possibility but you are not really all that sure of it?
Let’s put this to one side and move on because there are plenty more examples – the moon landing was faked, JFK assassination was a secret plot, 9/11 was an inside job, etc…
If curious, you can find a long list of such claims on Wikipedia.
What is fascinating about such lists is that many people will think, “Yea, you are right, all those are crazy claims, except for that one over there. You are wrong about that, it is quite real, I’m sure about that one“.
Yes, people sometimes really do conspire to gain or maintain influence or money. Here are a few familiar examples …
- The Tobacco companies rejected the claim that their product caused cancer – in 1976 seven of the world’s major tobacco companies conspired together to promote “controversy” over smoking and disease
- Large oil and gas companies have known for decades that their product was causing climate change. They funded political lobbying and various think tanks to push back against the emerging scientific understanding and to generally muddy the water and sow the seeds of confusion.
Moving beyond what is indeed verified, then what we generally mean by “conspiracy theory” are the generally wild whacky claims that have no evidence, but is just speculation at best.
Why do we see so much more of all this now?
There have always been whispers. What has changed is that social media has emerged to now rapidly spread such whispers to a far wider audience, and so we now live in the golden age of conspiracy claims.
The various social media platforms make money by attracting eyeballs to advertising. Those platforms that thrive are those that have successfully developed algorithms that are designed to hook people in and then keep them clicking again and again.
What ensnares is the radical weird and whacky stuff that tickles the human brain. A detailed discussion of the orbital mechanics of getting to the moon and back simply does not attract as many views as a story about NASA running a secret moon base to study an ancient alien city or similar. What really hooks is presenting it as a “fact” or a “deep secret” that “they” are hiding. That really perks up the view counts.
In other words, the need for revenue drives them to dish up BS as fact.
There are deeply serious consequences to all of this.
Scientific American: Kids are being ensnared by Disinformation
Just a few days ago Melinda Moyer wrote about how School kids Are Falling Victim to Disinformation and Conspiracy Fantasies.
She is a science journalist and also the author of “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting–from Tots to Teens” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021), and so is perhaps somebody worth listening to.
First she lays out the Social Media problem like this …
In a 2016 study involving nearly 8,000 U.S. students, Stanford University researchers found that more than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that an advertisement labeled as sponsored content was actually a news story. The researchers also found that less than 20 percent of high schoolers seriously questioned spurious claims in social media, such as a Facebook post that said images of strange-looking flowers, supposedly near the site of a nuclear power plant accident in Japan, proved that dangerous radiation levels persisted in the area.
She then expands upon that with this …
Disinformation campaigns often directly go after young users, steering them toward misleading content. A 2018 Wall Street Journal investigation found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which offers personalized suggestions about what users should watch next, is skewed to recommend videos that are more extreme and far-fetched than what the viewer started with. For instance, when researchers searched for videos using the phrase “lunar eclipse,” they were steered to a video suggesting that Earth is flat. YouTube is one of the most popular social media site among teens: After Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science, spent time searching for videos on YouTube and observed what the algorithm told her to watch next, she suggested that it was “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”
There is no ducking this issue, we really do have a very serious problem. That last line above is deeply scary.
On a daily basis literally millions of kids are bathing in a constant stream of disinformation. Unless something changes, society will reap the consequences of this.
I suspect we already are.
What Can we do?
One solution that Melinda suggests is Media Literacy Education. The goal of such teaching is to enable kids to seriously question what they are reading, to understand what sponsored content is and how it can bring with it a very distinct bias. Arming the next generation with the capacity to objectively analyse and question what is being fed to them is indeed a very powerful step to take.
One small problem, such courses are not generally taught. While some collages do teach this, the objection is that it is too late, you really do need to get them when they are 14 and are far more prone to being sucked down the rabbit hole.
That is one of the findings that the new study I flagged up at the start of this posting reveals. Adolescence appears to be a peak time for conspiracy theorizing. It is the time where we shape our beliefs about the world and also a time when a great deal of social media is being consumed.
We are leaving kids exposed and totally naked without the tools to shield themselves with.
That needs to change.
What tools can be deployed?
It is not one size fits all.
The following is a list of three very powerful approaches …
- Media Literacy Education – Teach kids how to critically evaluate the information they consume
- Critical Thinking Skills – Teach kids how to analyse the available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments, and to form a judgement
- Scientific Literacy – Teach kids what the scientific method is and also how statistics can be used, and also abused.
We might indeed focus upon education as a means to instil the basics; reading, writing, basic maths, etc… However, we live in a distinctly different information age. The flow of information has been greatly accelerated. With it comes a torrent of disinformation – exposure to that without the right tools will bring an inevitable surge in the disconnect between reality and what people think.
Common sense has become such a rare commodity these days that finding it is akin to finding somebody with a superpower.
We can still change that.
One last thought
Yes, these are all skills that need to be taught to kids and become a core part of education. However, it is not just for them, but for all of us, because we should never stop learning.