Comment: what happens when TikTok is your primary source for news and information?
On TikTok, you’re likely to find restaurant recommendations, lip-syncing snippets, and false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue and that crisis actors faked the school shooting. Uvalde. TikTok, along with Instagram, is where Gen Z looks for information and entertainment.
The internet is how Gen Z becomes informed – and too often misinformed – about the world. Nearly 40% of this generation, young people born between the late 1990s and early 2000s, prefer to use TikTok and Instagram as search engines, according to internal data recently released by Google.
These platforms feature short videos, which is great for a new dance move or a fun meme. But they can be just as effective at spreading videos conveying misinformation and conspiracy theories. Just because Gen Z grew up with social media doesn’t mean they know how to evaluate the information they find there.
Our education system has been slow to respond, often providing students with outdated strategies for determining credibility online, such as lingering on a website’s “About” page or checking when information was published or displayed. . Analog strategies like these are the equivalent of teaching 16-year-olds to drive a Tesla by handing them a manual for a horse-drawn carriage. Education must meet students where they are.
After administering a 2016 survey with colleagues from the Stanford History Education Group, we summed up students’ ability to separate digital fact from fiction in one word: “dark.” In the years that followed, fake news and misinformation dominated the national conversation. But raising awareness alone does not solve the problem.
In a follow-up in 2021, our research group interviewed over 3,000 Gen Zers, asking them to rate a grainy video that claimed to provide evidence of voter fraud in the United States. The video was actually shot in Russia. Students could find out by searching online for the words “2016 Democrat voter fraud video”, which quickly brings up links to Snopes and the BBC debunking the allegation. Still, the majority of those interviewed were duped, concluding that the video was “strong evidence” of US election tampering.
We can’t rely on social media platforms to solve the misinformation problem – they can’t even be trusted to monitor themselves. An analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that 58% of TikTok videos relating to COVID-19 vaccines lacked warning banners, despite the company’s commitment to flagging vaccine-related content. Bad information always seems to find a way to sneak through the platform’s protections.
Media literacy that will empower younger generations must be more than an appendage to today’s school curricula. The California Department of Education’s Civic Engagement Roadmap, for example, nods to “media literacy” as one of 10 “promising practices”, alongside ‘performance reviews’ and ‘service learning’, to prepare Gen Z to become ‘agents of positive change’. .”
The implementation of such directives is, however, left to the discretion of each teacher who, already overwhelmed, often entrusts the responsibility to others or gets rid of them in a lesson or two. In the information age, digital literacy should be the foundation of virtually everything schools teach.
We can’t stop Gen Z from relying on social media for information. Nor can we kid ourselves that a presentation by a teacher or the school librarian matches the scale of the misinformation challenge. If we want to reach young people today, we need to use tools they can relate to, including TikTok videos.
Curriculum transformation must include all areas of study.
Young people today spend seven to eight hours a day online, or about 3,000 hours a year. The challenge of identifying misinformation online will not be solved with just one strategy. It will take a program overhaul to really help Gen Z tell fact from fiction on the platforms where they spend their time.
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