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Youth Are Not Immune From Fake News

Thomas Barton

16 Dec 2020

Regularly, we read, hear, and see discussions about misinformation – ‘fake news’ – an increasingly normalised part of everyday language and debate. However, online misinformation is often seen as a generational problem, which influences older, less tech-savvy and unsuspecting individuals. Such a simplification is both dangerous and deceptive.

Young people are just as likely, if not more so, to believe coronavirus-related misinformation – we are not immune from Fake News. 

As previously discussed in a Backbench article, misinformation is a significant threat to our society. In the last few years, there has rarely been a national election which has not been plagued by misinformation, from Nigeria to Britain or Brazil. Furthermore, misinformation also has extremely serious societal consequences.

Globally, at least five promising coronavirus vaccines have completed or are undergoing final stages of large-scale clinical testing. However, the efficacy of these vaccines is undermined by the scale of ‘anti-vax’ disinformation circulating online – for example, up to 36% of Britons say they are uncertain or unlikely to be vaccinated.

The impact of misinformation on vaccine intake cannot be underestimated. In 2019, the UK lost its measles-free status designation by the World Health Organisation, and there has been a broader decline in vaccination rates for all diseases. Without fighting the misinformation pandemic in our society, even if we have the medical tools to treat COVID-19, we may be unable to eradicate it. Such ambivalence threatens to undermine the only way Britain can collectively overcome coronavirus.

More broadly, ‘fake news’ has infected every aspect of our society, from elections to everyday life. However, particularly the younger generation seems ambivalent to the misinformation they face every day. It can be comforting to think that it is others, not us, who are the cause of spreading ‘fake news’.

Nevertheless, social media is the most common news source among younger individuals, with Facebook and Twitter rated as the most important news sources among 16-24s. These social media sites are also the most common sources of fake news. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, 58% of 18-24 year olds came across false or misleading information about coronavirus.

Indeed, as research shows, we should not be too quick to dismiss the role younger generations in sharing potential sources of misinformation. Young people are not solely at blame for spreading misinformation – but equally, rather than deflecting responsibility, we can play a significant role in countering it.

Now, the important question is: what can we do to combat misinformation? Ultimately, the problem needs to be addressed from a political, technical, and societal level. For example, Parliament’s APPG on Media Literacy has commissioned an independent inquiry into how misinformation should be addressed in the upcoming Online Harms Bill. Yet, as in many situations, regulatory change has a considerable, but not ceaseless power for change.

The international and online context of the internet means that it will be difficult to resolve the ‘fake news’ crisis on a purely political level.  Similarly, as the 2020 US Election has shown, social media platforms should use algorithmic responses and explanatory notes to reduce ‘fake news’. Nevertheless, some organisations like Facebook prefer a ‘hands-off’ approach – for example, Mark Zuckerberg does not wish to be an online ‘arbiter of truth’. Therefore, to solve misinformation, we must also act ourselves.

In this context, the most important counter to misinformation is our own community. As younger people predominate numerous social media platforms, we have a particularly important role to combat ‘fake news’. After all, it is the users of social media platforms which are its fundamental substance. Rather than deflecting blame, we can use our collective position of power to encourage fact-based, high quality discussion online.

Let us work to provide an alternative to ‘fake news’ and encourage an informed and inclusive online (and real-life community). Most importantly, let’s change the trend of noticing, but not challenging misinformation when we see it – only one fifth of social media users seeing false information do something about it.

Of course, technology companies and governments must address the underlying problems which encourage misinformation. However, young people have the power to change the conversation on misinformation. It is something which affects every part of our lives, rather than someone else’s responsibility.

Rather than ambivalently ignoring misinformation in everyday and online life, let us use our collective power to create a fairer, freer, and informed online community. Young people are not immune from fake news, but we can be the antidote which starts the healing process from this social and political crisis. 

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