Fact or fiction: spotting misinformation

A college perspective

By Kate McCarthy

Information is everywhere. All. The. Time. It’s on our phones, laptops, and even watches – we are overloaded. With so much information available at our fingertips, it has become increasingly difficult to discern between what is true and what is false and college students can be especially vulnerable to misinformation. 

A recent study in media literacy conducted by the Stanford History Education Group surveyed over 200 college students. They found that two-thirds never identified a satirical news headline, and 95% failed to locate the public relations lobbyist behind a supposedly ‘nonpartisan’ website. 

College students today, like the ones at SUNY Brockport, are mostly members of Generation Z which is the most online generation ever in history. According to statistics, 74% of Gen Z-ers spend their free time online and their average online time a day is 8+ hours. This constant access and connection with the online world mean more encounters with misinformation.

“When COVID first started there were like fake cures going around. Like saying how garlic can be used to essentially cure COVID and that was never something that was scientifically proven and I believed it but it turned out to be fake,” SUNY Brockport student Naomi Gilliam said.

Misleading headlines and pictures contribute to instances like this. The practice is widely known as click-bait.

SUNY Brockport student looking at FOX News homepage. Taken 4-1-22. Photo by Kate McCarthy

“I think it [the media] is really heavy with headlines. Sometimes headlines and pictures don’t align,” SUNY Brockport student Nevaeh Wilson said.

A 2020 study analyzed 1.67 million Facebook posts created by 153 media organizations to understand the extent of clickbait practice. They found that both ‘mainstream media’ and ‘unreliable media’ often use clickbait and that its prevalence grew from 2014 to 2016.    

Dr. Alexander Moe is an assistant professor of media studies at SUNY Brockport.  He has spent most of his career studying information and media perceptions. 

“I would say that it [misinformation] started to get on people’s minds during the 2016 election. We had president Trump both discrediting and attacking journalists so that also put fuel to the fire. And then on top of that, we had the pandemic during the presidential swap between Trump and Biden,” Moe said.

The colossal amount of information available is the main cause for so much misinformation. However, personal bias plays a role as well.

“I think, to some degree, there is so much information available now than compared to ten years ago that we might have a fragmentation in terms of how we assess different types of content,” Moe said. “We also have personal biases where we want to believe something and that can also fuel, you know, conspiracies like QAnon or something like that where because the story in our minds checks out that has to mean that it is true.”

The problem of misinformation is often discussed but solutions are rarely provided.  Here are some tips from Dr. Moe to avoid misinformation.

1. SOURCES SOURCES SOURCES!

When consuming media, knowing the source is by the far the most important step for avoiding misinformation.

A Pew Research survey conducted in June 2020 found that many Americans are unsure whether sources of news do their own reporting. Even more, only 10% of Americans knowingly share fake news or information online, according to statistics gathered in March 2019.

“Always analyze the source you’re reading and try to find the source of your source. Most times if somebody is not listing a source then they are basically just writing their opinion. That can be an indication of misinformation,” Moe said.

Knowing the biases of certain media outlets is good to keep in mind as well.

2. Trust your gut…to a certain degree

Intuition is a strong and useful tool sometimes, so make sure you don’t rule it out completely. However, open-mindedness is key.

“Trust your gut but only as long as your gut is aligned to being acceptable of multiple points of view – that you aren’t set in your ways yourself to some degree,” Moe said.

3. Use the buddy system – second opinions are valuable

As much as sources and gut feelings go, sometimes a second opinion can help you avoid misinformation too.

“Use a buddy system. Get a second pair of eyes in terms of evaluating the validity of the information. Instead of trying to sway our friends by sending them a link or saying ‘look, I was right about this,’ turn it on its head and say ‘what do you think about this article?’ – ‘is this true?’” Moe said.

With so much information packed into our daily routines, knowing how to spot misinformation, especially for college students, is crucial. After all, these are our future workers, leaders, educators, and innovators. 



Categories: Brockport, Campus Life, college students, Education, fake news, misinformation, News, SUNY Brockport

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