More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." If there was ever a time when those words ring true, it is now.
Most people probably don't know that in the months leading to the presidential election, the 20 top-performing fake stories on Facebook outperformed the 20 top stories from verifiable news outlets. That's according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. Fake stories included Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and that Pope Francis endorsed Republican Donald Trump. As absurd as they may be, many believed the stories.
More unsettling though is that young people, the future of the American democracy, seem just as confused as their elders. Although they are the most technically agile generation, they're also more likely to be tricked because they're new at finding credible news sources.
A new Stanford University study found middle school students couldn't tell an advertisement from a news story and that college and high school students were easily duped by a public relations stunt, mistakenly believing an opinionated webpage was sponsored by a nonpartisan think tank.
Researchers concluded: "Young people's abilities to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak."
But it's not all bleak. Glimmers of hope come from area universities, from Stockton to West Chester, where professors are teaching students how to sift the fake from the real news, staff writer Jonathan Lai reported.
Stanford has designed a curriculum for secondary school students on how to evaluate primary information sources. It's been downloaded 3.5 million times and is used by a few school districts. More districts should teach such critical thinking skills in all grades to reach the broadest number of future voters.
Today's youth are coming of age in an era when the new Oxford Dictionary's word of the year is post-truth, defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief."
Students should learn the difference between opinion and straight news and how to find reputable sources from newspapers, digital sites and broadcast news stations with reporting staffs. All of these outlets make mistakes at times, but the best among them readily admit errors because their primary goal is to provide accurate information. They cite sources so consumers can learn more, determine motives, or easily verify information. High standards are rare on the internet, but essential to maintaining the democracy. Without common agreement on the facts, there is little hope our problems can be identified and solved.
Jefferson could not have anticipated the internet age but he presciently warned that: "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information."
Maybe he should have said factual information.