Misinformation Via Trust: Why Teenagers Fall For Fake Messages

With more children using social media as their primary source of information, the chances for falling for 'fake' is also escalating. However, most schools don't have courses on misinformation. And, that can lead to a crisis.

When the Coronavirus pandemic shut schools and kept pushing board exams, school children were left in flux. The easiest way to keep up with the quick, constant change in information was through social media and WhatsApp groups. This is when 17-year-old Shrinidhi Mulamuttal, who studied in a school in Bengaluru, was flooded with fake 'viral' messages.

"We used to actively use social media to check when our exams will happen, whether they will happen or not. Often, we would receive fake date sheets on WhatsApp," she said.

"In fact, our teacher forwarded a fake date sheet to us," Shrinidhi, who is now studying in a college in Ahmedabad said.

When one of the date sheets went massively 'viral', Shrinidhi and her friends started discussing its veracity- if it is official. "We checked the official website of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) which always uploads the date sheet once it's out but this time, it didn't carry the viral one," she explained, summarising how they found out it was fake.

Shrinidhi is one among the many teenagers who have encountered misinformation on social media platforms.

She defines the term 'fake news' as "rumours that rapidly spread on social media."

For Anshuman Rath, a 17-year-old studying in Class 12 in Mumbai, misinformation is "when somebody is unintentionally trying to spread information that isn't factually correct."

Anshuman said he has heard several home remedies from his family members that would apparently cure COVID. None of them came with any evidence.

"I heard that applying eucalyptus oil in your body or near your nose would cure coronavirus. I have heard that drinking Cola deeply affects your immune system in a bad way," he said.

Both Shrinidhi and Anshuman have one thing in common—they haven't been taught how to fact-check in their respective schools.

Misinformation, From People You 'Trust'

Kundan Sanyal, a class 10 student living in Dwarka, Delhi said that he finds a piece of information trustworthy if he knows that it's coming from a person whom he identifies and trusts.

That may be a tricky way to believe information too. People of 'trust' are also capable of spreading misinformation. In Shrinidhi's school, it was one of her teachers who forwarded the fake message.

In a conversation with BOOM, Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist at Fortis Healthcare, said that teenagers tend to be quick in their perusal of information. "So, they would not necessarily go into in-depth analysis of what information they are getting. They will not necessarily look at what is the source of information. They may not always think whether there could be a purpose behind it or could there be another way to look at it," she added.

With more children using social media as their primary source of information, the chances of falling for disinformation are also escalating. However, most schools don't have courses on mis/disinformation in their curriculums.

A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) survey released in August 2021 that was conducted in 10 nations noted: "Up to three-quarters of children reported feeling unable to judge the veracity of the information they encounter online."

Earlier in 2017, Common Sense Media had found that in a sample of 853 children aged between 10-18, not even half of children were confident that they could differentiate between misinformation and authentic information.

Out of different sources of information, the children showed trust in their family members for consuming news but preferred to get it from online news platforms with teachers being the next one in the ladder.

Mir Mohammed Ali, advisor to the Kerala fact-check wing under the Department of Information and Public Relations, has found some unique ways to train teachers on how to bust disinformation.

"We are heavily dependent on online information and money is made out of attracting attention," Mohammed Ali told BOOM in an interview explaining how fake news spreaders attract attention by manipulation of images and videos with bogus claims. In his training, he uses examples of those.

"We show students how something famous is falsely attributed to a prominent personality, how you can make use of newspaper articles in order to gain more credibility, how government circulars and medical advisories are morphed, how videos are circulated out of context," he said.

Mohammed Ali has directly trained 200 teachers at the state level. Through his initiative, 400-500 teachers have been trained who have in turn trained teachers at district level.

The district-level teachers have then gone on to teach children in schools studying in classes 6-12.

Two years ago, during a training session, Mir asked the students what they would do if they received a message that said there will be an earthquake the next day and so a holiday has been announced. "What would your first reaction be?" he asked.

The first response that he got was, "I would forward it to everybody because if it's not true, somebody will tell me." The response took him by surprise. However, he said, "It was surprising, but not illogical".

"I will ask the police", "I will ask my friend's mother because she is very knowledgeable," "I will call the school," were some of the responses before he finally got the correct one.

The right answer would have been that they would ask the person who sent the message for their source of information. This was the sixth response.

The curriculum makes students aware of information literacy by telling them about high reliance on online information, the business model behind the internet in general and social media platforms in particular, and what we can do as a society.

Mir said that misinformation is often shared by people whom they trust. Nearly four years ago, in one of his interactions with parents, he asked them why they don't believe in the vaccination for measles and instead believe WhatsApp forwards despite doctors' advice. The response that he got was, "This information has not been shared by some random people, our neighbours and teachers have shared it with us."

Why Do Teenagers Fall For Misinformation?

An investigation carried out by NewsGuard last year found that TikTok exposed young children to false and misleading information about COVID with hardly any warning labels. Nine children aged between nine to 17 were asked to sign up on the platform and wait for 45 minutes in order to check how soon TikTok would show them misinformation about COVID.

"NewsGuard's analysis of screen recordings taken by the participants shows that in their first 35 minutes on TikTok, all but one (88.89 percent) were shown misinformation related to COVID-19, and two-thirds (66.67 percent) were shown misinformation specific to COVID-19 vaccines," the report added.

Some of those false claims included— "COVID vaccines kill people," "COVID-19 is the name of the international plan for the control and reduction of populations," "Natural immunity to COVID-19 is better than getting the vaccine".

So, what do teenagers do when they are not sure about some information that they have received?

One of the teenagers that BOOM spoke to said that they look up the information about the claim that they have received on the media outlets that they trust. Another one said that if they are doubtful about it, they simply ignore it. Meanwhile, others said they perform a search on Google to find the veracity of the claim.

While there aren't studies specific to India, research from the United Kingdom found that adolescents were most likely to begin believing in conspiracy theories from the time they turn 14.

"In one of our studies, we found that as adolescents reach around this age, their conspiracy beliefs were higher than in younger age groups. In another study, we found that 18-year-olds displayed higher belief in conspiracy theories compared to a mixed‐age sample of older adults. It, therefore, seems that adolescence could be a peak time for conspiracy theorising," an article authored by Daniel Jolley, Karen Douglas and Yvonne Skipper published by The Conversation mentioned.

While mentioning the aspects that are potentially responsible for teenagers not being able to tell whether a piece of information is misinformation or not, Kamna Chhibber pointed out that they tend to rely on themselves a lot more. "So, this is the time when they're establishing their identity. They believe that what they feel or understand would be the best understanding that can be had," she added.

Another aspect is that teenagers are vulnerable to influence from their peers, which means that if one of their friends share a piece of particular information, they get easily swayed in the same direction and may not necessarily question it. Hence, they are more likely to conform to it.

"Also, they don't necessarily talk to adults around them. They feel that adults wouldn't understand or they wouldn't get their perspective. As a result, they tend to not necessarily discuss what their thoughts are and because of which they are dismissive of that need to check that they could be looking at things from a wrong perspective which another adult may be able to give them corrective experiences for," Kamna noted.

How To Tell Teenagers When They Share Misinformation?

We live in a world of cancel culture. One comes across several instances of social media users attempting to fact-check one another and call out each other for claims that they think are false and misleading. Often, this leads to trending hashtags, arguments over Twitter with some even refusing to accept that they shared misinformation.

But, what about teenagers? Should one call them out for sharing incorrect information?

Kamna feels that 'calling out' should be avoided as the term itself has a negative connotation attached to it and it comes with a sense of blame. This could further impact any teenager in a negative way.

"For instance, it could take away from their confidence, it could lead to lack of certainty about how to go about making decisions and choices, understanding things, how they're relying on certain individuals in their lives, could make them question their relationships especially if a piece of information was coming from a source that they really trusted," Kamna opined.

She added that this could further lead to increase in anxiousness, worrying and excessive thinking. In some instances, children might end up withdrawing from people, isolating themselves, not wanting to talk or not wanting to discuss.

Then, how should adults talk to teenagers about misinformation?

"The adults around them should take a one-on-one approach while telling the teenagers that they have shared misinformation. The approach should be to try and understand from them what it was that motivated them to share that information. Why was it that they could not think of questioning it and what could have they done to ensure that the information they are giving out is the right information," Kamna said.

Mir, advisor to the Kerala fact-check wing, believes that all schools will have to introduce information literacy in their curriculums.

"In India, the pace at which smartphone usage is growing and the rate at which data is becoming cheaper, I think in the next 5-10 years, the dependence on online information is going to increase," he said.

"It's already happening in most advanced countries," he added, saying that the Western countries are having a tough time dealing with the misinformation problem among teenagers because of their dependence on online information.

"It's like how we started teaching computer science once and then many started using computers. The same thing will happen for information literacy as well. There will be a point when everyone will consider this as basic education," he said.

Updated On: 2022-03-25T23:48:17+05:30
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