Any effective fact-checking routine must incorporate the practice of “lateral reading.” Verifying facts, sources, or claims in a web article entails opening a lot of tabs and conducting numerous searches. Therefore, it was encouraging to learn that Generation Z is utilizing this strategy more than any other generation, according to a recent survey from Poynter, YouGov, and Google.
In a survey released today, Google asked more than 8,000 people from seven different nations, ranging in age from Generation Z (defined for this study as those between the ages of 18 and 25) to the Silent Generation (68+), about misinformation and how they analyze dubious content online.
The study’s main finding is that younger people are more inclined to believe that they may have mistakenly provided inaccurate or misleading information, frequently as a result of the pressure to immediately convey emotional content. However, they are also better at employing cutting-edge fact-checking methods.
More than twice as many Gen Z respondents as Boomers (33%) stated they always or frequently use lateral reading to check facts. A third of those under 30 years old also claimed to do searches on more than one search engine to compare results and to look past the first page of search results.
Parts of the study offer an intriguing look at how people of various ages and places experience disinformation and consider their own involvement in preventing or spreading it. For instance, 62% of all respondents said they come across misinformation online on a weekly basis.
Readers in the Gen Z, Millennial, and Gen X generations are more assured in their capacity to recognize false information and are more concerned that members of their close social networks may take something false they read online as gospel.
The study, however, relies on people accurately reporting their own beliefs and habits. And the upbeat statistics regarding Gen Z’s actual practices contrast sharply with previous research on how individuals verify information online.
Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor who researches fact-checking procedures, believes he knows why: “self-report” is “bullshit” when it comes to understanding how people actually behave on the internet, he says.
“What people say they do versus what they do do?” He continues. “That discrepancy goes back to the earliest days of social psychology,” he says, adding that without intervention, younger people rarely use lateral reading or other advanced fact-checking techniques.
Researchers recently examined whether an online course on fact-checking methods could enhance how college students verify information in a study led by Wineburg and his Stanford colleagues.
Only three out of the 87 students who were evaluated before the course did lateral reading, which is when a person leaves the page they are evaluating to consult another source.
“If people spontaneously did [lateral reading], we’d all be in a lot better shape,” Wineburg stated.
In a broader study, a group of online allegations were investigated by almost 3,000 high school students. The findings were very depressing: more than half of the students polled thought that a Russian-produced anonymous Facebook video provided “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the US.
There is little doubt that Gen Z uses the internet differently than earlier generations. However, young people are also vulnerable to the same traps, weaponized disinformation strategies, and sharing pressure that have long supported unethical online behavior.