Do not believe everything you read online – except this

Telling the truth online
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Do you believe everything you read online? After all, some people do not even believe the Bible.

Trust me, this is true. Honest. Believe me. But, apparently, there are some things on the Internet which are – there is no easy way of saying this – untrue..! That’s right, some of the pages on the Internet contain material that is made up, fabricated, even a blatant lie. Well, stand back in amazement. I am stunned. Not.

A simple press release issued by the educational technology company, Pearson, has led to a range of news stories many purporting to reveal a “new study” about how gullible the “digital native” generation of children and young people can be. According to many of the news stories which have appeared in the past few days the “study” shows that people believe what they read on the Internet and “therefore” the Internet is fostering gullibility in new generations. We are all doomed it seems as we are going to increasingly accept what we read online as true, even if it isn’t.

All sounds fine – in theory. Except the real gullibility is in the journalists supposedly reporting the story. The press release was announcing a talk by an educational researcher who was going to discuss his work from the late-1990s. What he had done was set up a website about a fictional “tree octopus“. Of course, there is no such creature, but the website could make you think there is – indeed it includes a campaign to save this endangered species. However, the real purpose of this site is as an educational tool – to help children identify characteristics which might suggest online material is not as genuine as it seems. Even though the site had been used in research to show that some youngsters actually believed it to be true, the reporters who wrote the recent stories should have checked their facts and in doing so would have discovered that a) this is not “news” and b) it is more complex than “youngsters are gullible”.

But even scientific researchers are gullible. To suggest that modern children believe everything they read online even when it is untrue, without any comparisons of whether they believe everything in print, is a weakness in studies of this kind. Equally, there is no time comparison: did children 25 years ago, for instance, believe everything in the magazines and literature they read, even if it was fake? We don’t have any data on this – but my hunch is that children have always been gullible until they learn critical and analytical thinking.

You should not believe anyything you read – anywhere. Indeed, one of the skills of analytical thinking is to suspend belief for anything you are told or you read so that you can make your mind up about it. The tree octopus study was merely pointing this out. It is such a shame that journalists seem to believe that it is a new study (it is not) and that the research confirms a change in behaviour (which it does not). Perhaps we do not need to teach children that the Internet might lie to them. Perhaps we need to train our journalists better – or at least employ ones who are capable of analytical thought.

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