On TikTok you are liable to find restaurant recommendations, lip-syncing snippets and false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue and that crisis actors faked the Uvalde school shooting. TikTok, along with Instagram, is where Gen Z searches for information and entertainment. They often come with a blurry mix between fact and fiction.
The Internet is how Gen Zs are informed about the world – and often misinformed. According to recently released internal data by Google, about 40% of this generation, young people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, prefer to use TikTok and Instagram as their search engine.
These platforms feature short videos, which is great for a new dance move or funny meme. But they can be just as effective in spreading misinformation and videos telling 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Our educational system has been slow to respond, often providing students with out-of-date strategies for determining online credibility such as staying on the “About” page of a website or seeing when information was published or posted. Such analog strategies are the equivalent of teaching 16-year-olds to drive a Tesla by giving them a manual for a horse-drawn carriage. Education should meet the students where they are. Believe it or not, that address is now all over social media.
Following a 2016 survey with colleagues from the Stanford History Education Group, we summarized students’ ability to separate digital fact from fiction into one word: “Black.” In the intervening years, fake news and misinformation have dominated the national conversation. But awareness alone does not solve the problem.
In a 2021 follow-up, our research group surveyed more than 3,000 Gen Xers, asking them to evaluate a grainy video that claimed to provide evidence of US voter fraud. The video was actually shot in Russia. Students can figure this out by searching online for the words “Democrat 2016 Voter Fraud Video,” which quickly brings up links to Snopes and the BBC’s debunking of the claim. Yet most of those surveyed were deceived, concluding that the video constitutes “strong evidence” of US election tampering.
We can’t rely on social media platforms to solve the problem of misinformation – they can’t even be trusted to the police themselves. An analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that 58% of TikTok videos related to COVID-19 vaccines lacked a warning banner, despite the company’s commitment to flag content related to the vaccine. It seems that bad information always finds a way to slip through platform security measures.
Media literacy that will empower the younger generation needs to be more than an addendum to today’s school curriculum. For example, the California State Department of Education’s Civic Engagement Roadmap lists “media literacy” as one of the 10 “promising practices” for becoming “agent of positive change,” along with “performance assessment” and “service learning.” Prepares as one of. ,
Implementation of such guidelines, however, is left to the discretion of individual teachers, who are already overworked, often delegating responsibility to others or shunning it away in a lesson or two. It is very important to teach students to distinguish reliable information from inaccuracies or outright lies, which should be left to personal discretion. In an information age, digital literacy should be the foundation of practically everything schools teach.
We can’t stop Gen Z from relying on social media for information. Nor can we joke to ourselves that a teacher or school librarian’s presentation matches the scale of the misinformation challenge. If we want to reach today’s youth, we must use tools they can relate to – including TikTok videos – to teach content we consider important. In doing so, we can sharpen students’ ability to identify misinformation.
For example, math classes could be reimagined to help students understand how algorithms curate the content they see on social media platforms. Educators can explain how TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms sacrifice credibility to keep users’ eyes glued to the screen.
Economics courses can help students understand the business model of platforms in our “attention economy” and how profit motives align with the promotion of viral misinformation.
English courses can explain how small variations in search terms produce different results. Search for “vaccine” on TikTok and you will be directed to access information from the World Health Organization. Try “heavy metal vaccinations” and you’ll find tons of videos about fake claims.
The change of curriculum should cover all areas of study. This is already happening in Illinois, where some innovative teachers are integrating digital literacy into core school subjects.
Today’s youth spend seven to eight hours a day online, somewhere around 3,000 hours a year. No single strategy will solve the challenge of spotting misinformation online. It will actually change a course to help Gen Zs separate fact from fiction on the platforms where they spend their time.
Sam Wineberg is Professor of Education at Stanford University and founder of the Stanford History Education Group, where Nadav Jive is a research associate.