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Study finds college students most likely to spread false information online

A picture showing the cracked front window of LGBT bar Woody’s Classic Pub started circulating Facebook in mid-November.

According to the post, which amassed hundreds of shares in just a few hours, the vandalism was an anti LGBT hate crime committed by Trump supporters.

Woody’s bartender Michelle Wyssmann, however, isn’t convinced Facebook got this one right.

“I have worked at this location through three bar concepts, and that same window has been shattered two times before this,” said Wyssmann. “The brick used to break the window was a piece of a cinder block that’s been sitting outside of the bar for ages, so the person who did this didn’t even bring their own brick. This leads me to believe it was just someone walking down the street and saw an opportunity.”

Despite all the digital outrage, Wyssmann said she sees no reason to believe the vandalism was premeditated or that Woody’s was specifically targeted.

According to a recent study published by researchers at Stanford University, incidents of false information rapidly spreading online are alarmingly common in the United States.

Specifically, the study found that middle school, high school and college students often lack the ability to determine whether information is true or not.

College students in particular had difficulty identifying potential biases and assessing credibility.

Though this goes against the common assumption that today’s college students are more technologically savvy than older generations, and therefore less susceptible to misinformation, students on campus agree the spread of false information on social media is a growing problem.

UMKC student Melody Libor is working on an honors thesis project investigating the prevalence of fake news posts on Facebook. She landed on this topic after seeing false or misleading articles online almost everyday.

“I see it all the time when I scroll through Facebook,” said Libor. “People will see a random video or article posted by a random person and assume it is true.”

According to Libor, the Stanford study’s results are unsurprising.

“It is easy to accept information if it supports your morals,” she said. “Even if a post is meant to bolster a good cause, like speaking out against hate crimes, it doesn’t mean the information itself is actually true.”

The team at Stanford offered multiple possible explanations that contribute to this trend among college students.

Fake news websites look almost identical to legitimate news sites. This, combined with students’ reliance on databases and filters on school computer networks that block unreliable sites, is leaving young people vulnerable to false information.

Luckily, there are some simple behaviors students can adopt to limit their exposure to fake news.

“I usually try and check multiple news sources,” said Libor. “If I see something somewhere else that catches my attention, I might google it to see if I can find more information. Most of the time when I do that, the stories are fake.”

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