Wild West on the internet
September 30, 2011 4:45 AM   Subscribe

Is the internet rewriting history? Teaching the difference between truth and propaganda online via BBC

As part of their research into the influence of the internet on young people, Demos teamed up with creative agency Bold for a workshop exploring digital literacy at a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, in East London.

Pupils were asked to rate various sources of information - the government, Twitter, the Guardian newspaper, their family - according to how much they trusted it. The results were telling.

Closest to the heading 'Trust' the pupils placed YouTube; somewhere near the heading 'Distrust', they placed the government.
posted by infini (32 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder where they would have placed the BBC itself because that it no trusted source.
posted by episodic at 4:59 AM on September 30, 2011

I object to the dichotomy trust-youtube, distrust-government. I can trust either youtube conspiracy theorists, or I can trust the government?

No thanks. The presence of cranks on youtube does not necessarily make established or government sources of information more true.
posted by cotterpin at 5:05 AM on September 30, 2011

BBC News: Are we hip yet?
posted by Cerulean at 5:10 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

For being such a short article it had a lot of paragraph breaks, which I found distracting. Regardless, it's not really shocking that people, especially young people, lack critical thinking skills. Frankly, it's hard to know what to believe, even for the most critical among us. I don't think anyone should just trust what they read or hear, but the fact remains people have pretty much always been willing to do just that, I'm not sure that this phenomenon has a whole lot to do with the internet.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:16 AM on September 30, 2011

"We have something like a Wild West on the internet," says Jamie Bartlett, senior researcher at Demos.

I have a feeling someone has said this every year since 1993. Or maybe 1969 when UCLA connected to SRI. "To the Wild West!" *click*
posted by starman at 5:27 AM on September 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

FYI, the research here is shoddy at best. Demos' report can be found here.

Right, so part of the research is "a survey of primary and secondary school teachers in England and Wales about their views on their pupils' digital fluency, and how it might be taught in school."

The rest of the findings are supported by a literature review and, as far as I can tell, two workshops, both of which are mentioned in the BBC article.

So, the findings are based on what teachers think, what the researchers have read and a group of, say, 60 students.

I am shocked, shocked, that their findings seem to confirm fears about internet use. And that they didn't find the time to talk to that many actual, you know, 'digital natives'.
posted by litleozy at 5:30 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Of course, the BBC would never turn the spotlight back on itself — and mass media at large — which:

• edits photographs to suit an editor's narrative
• rewrites online articles, without providing any history of edits
• hides and deletes articles older than x days, creating a de facto Memory Hole

The New York Times and WSJ are particularly guilty of these sorts of shenanigans, and they are supposed to be the standard-bearers for recording history.

I can't really blame young people for having a poor understanding of current events and a general mistrust of authority, when the media makes it their mission to marginalize and fictionalize causality on a daily basis.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:30 AM on September 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

Based on materials I have encountered, the internet is actually rewritting history.
posted by aught at 5:34 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wonder if Demos appreciate the irony of drumming up business for their think tank through wafer-thin press releases to newspapers which are ostensibly about warning people about the spread of inaccurate propaganda being disseminated for nefarious purposes.
posted by kithrater at 5:36 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

FFS, why single out the internet? How many of the older generation still get their 'facts' from such shining examples of truth as the Daily Mail, Express, Sun etc?

Teaching kids how to judge the validity of sources is a very good thing. But they need to expand it to other, more established media too.

Critical thinking is extremely important, but it's not just restricted to the bleedin' internet, for goodness' sake.

This quote applies to all forms of media:

"There's a huge amount of very trustworthy, academic, good bits of journalism [...]"

"But at the same time, equal proportions of distortions, propaganda, lies, mistruths, half-truths and all sorts of rubbish. It can be very difficult, especially for younger people, to sort the wheat from the chaff."

posted by ComfySofa at 5:36 AM on September 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

"YouTube" isn't more trusted than the government. "Other regular people" are. It just happens that YouTube is one place that other regular people are hanging out at, in an easily understood form (video).

That's what makes the Internet so powerful. You can talk to regular people directly, without a lawyer or public relations person or corporate policy or ass-covering politician getting in the way.
posted by DU at 5:43 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh cripes, how did I forget "journalist" in my list of people who get in the way. You know how bad science writing is? Political journalism is probably at least twice as bad as that, because where's the incentive to be better?
posted by DU at 5:44 AM on September 30, 2011

I should probably find a sockpuppet via which to articulate (with citations) my experience with Demos and their pre-colonial attitudes towards Asians (which apparently is the focus of this article)

More of a thinly veiled attempt to find influences at a tender age i.e. prevention rather than paranoia
posted by infini at 6:01 AM on September 30, 2011

Quite funny to find out I'm not the only Demos discontent on Metafilter.
posted by litleozy at 6:15 AM on September 30, 2011

The NYT or other mainstream sources piss me off, too, but the Internet has NO editors. In the old days, researching with encyclopedias and books, sure, political bias was always there. States and big institutions are concerned with keeping their version of reality alive.

But, as a teacher, with thousands of anecdotes (sorry, no peer-reviewed research), it is apparent that in doing research, kids often have little idea what is true and what is false and what is opinion. There are a lot of subtle cues about the reliability of sources we take for granted, but a lot of youngsters just find the first article they can about the subject at hand, press print, take out their yellow highlighter, and research is done. Taking notes has to be taught, once again, although it may come naturally to many of us. Teaching how to rate the trustworthiness of a 'Net site is tricky, but necessary. The Internet was less cluttered with shit ten tears ago, too, IMO.
posted by kozad at 6:36 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mike Baron thought of it first.
posted by yerfatma at 6:39 AM on September 30, 2011

I've only skimmed the Demos report, and it's clearly different from the kind of research you would expect in an academic setting. But that doesn't make it shoddy or useless.

So, the findings are based on what teachers think, what the researchers have read and a group of, say, 60 students.

Yeah, literature reviews, who needs 'em. Teachers, what would they know about the kids of today. What we need is research that ignores any previous studies in this area and ignores the insights of informed professionals!

Your complaint appears to be that these two researchers didn't go out and interview hundreds (thousands?) of schoolkids to get a more comprehensive view of their digital fluency. That assumes that schoolkids are always the best judge of their own understanding. But all that any child is the best judge of is what he or she thinks - not whether what he or she thinks is correct, or whether what he or she thinks is typical of large numbers of children. You can find out the answers to the latter by polling large numbers of kids, perhaps, but the results will still be subject to adult interpretation at the end of it all, just as the questions will have been framed by adults in the first place.

A reasonable way of extending the reach of your inquiry in these cases is to talk to intermediaries. If you wanted to know something about how patients behave in hospital, it would make sense to talk to doctors and nurses, not just patients - and probably doctors and nurses more than patients, because any one patient has a pretty limited impression of hospital life, unless they've been really unlucky.

So if you want some insight into how kids today deal with online information, by all means talk to some kids, but also talk to teachers, and also look at other studies that have been done on the subject. All the things these researchers did, in other words. If that's "shoddy at best", then your complaint is essentially that social science research conducted under real-world conditions falls short of omnipotence. You don't want Demos, you want Deus.
posted by rory at 7:56 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

The NYT or other mainstream sources piss me off, too, but the Internet has NO editors.

Also no editor telling you you can't run this story because the owners won't tolerate it.

The internet permits, more now than ever, divergent accounts of any event. That doesn't mean those who were content to consume pre-digested views before will do the work to form their own now. But at least it's available.

The newsstand tray for one paper here has the tagline: "Have you had your perspective yet?" Makes me want to burn the stack every time.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:58 AM on September 30, 2011

I would worry a lot less about the internet re-writing history than about the Chamber of Commerce and the Texas school board doing that.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:14 AM on September 30, 2011

More on topic, isn't this a bit like blaming the printing press for rewriting history?

What the study authors are really saying here is that they think amateurs are rewriting history and the internet is making it easier for them to get their revisionist histories out to the public.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:17 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

For those of us who realized even before the Internet was popular that the production of "history" is merely a means to make the most bloodthirsty tribe feel better about itself, the Internet has been an sparkling oasis in a vast desert.
posted by telstar at 9:31 AM on September 30, 2011

Re: trusting YouTube versus the government - I watch cat videos and music videos on YouTube. I trust that the cats in the cat videos are actual cats doing non-simulated, cute, cat-things, and that the songs in the music video have the titles and are performed by the artists listed in the video description. From the government, I get information about public policy debates, demographics, emergency response measures to natural disasters, weather forecasts, etc. My degree of trust in this information being unbiased varies a fair amount by context. I'm not sold on the hypothesis that there's a meaningful comparison to be made between YouTube and the government on some entirely decontextualized trustworthiness scale. But I will go read the article now:P
posted by eviemath at 10:00 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Huh. Apparently the kids in the article mostly use YouTube to watch videos about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Is this a common Thing?
posted by eviemath at 10:05 AM on September 30, 2011

Furthermore, is the Internet solving a mystery?
posted by Eideteker at 10:49 AM on September 30, 2011

rory, that sounds like this debate (and one I'm in right now as I keep trying to find ways to satisfy the 'research' types that the 'research' methods are still valid.)

I think what we're seeing here is a demonstration of the increasing influence of design related /user oriented thinking that the UK has been trying to embed in areas outside of its traditional application viz.,

teamed up with creative agency Bold for a workshop exploring

[Insert here long cited essay here on exploratory user research using design ethnography methods]
posted by infini at 10:49 AM on September 30, 2011

Y'know, if it's true that young people today put too much trust in what they find on the Internet, there's an easy cure: get them to make their own websites. Nothing destroys unquestioning faith in an institution like being part of it.
posted by baf at 10:51 AM on September 30, 2011

Huh. Apparently the kids in the article mostly use YouTube to watch videos about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Is this a common Thing?

Yes, it took me a while (and possibly I wouldn't have made this FPP tbh) to realize this plus that its from the BBC's Asian channel to wonder if there was a deeper finding being made regarding ways and means young men might be influenced by those who might wish to influence them etc
posted by infini at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2011

Apparently the kids in the article mostly use YouTube to watch videos about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Is this a common Thing?

No, kids don't really know much, or care much, about 9/11. And they certainly don't know or care about the USA installing the Shah in Iran 50-odd years ago, and other events that contributed to the Arab world's hatred of the USA. And even if they read the papers, they wouldn't read about such events.

It is true that you can find out about history and politics on the Internet, from many different perspectives, but not too many American kids care about all this. If you think people under 18 care about what their country has done in Chile, etc....well, you know a few exceptional kids. Most of them live in a world of hormones, high school and Facebook. They will grow up soon. They can use the Internet intelligently before long.
posted by kozad at 11:06 AM on September 30, 2011

if it's true that young people today put too much trust in what they find on the Internet

I guess this is why Snopes has its gotcha section, but it still surprises me. I would have expected the wikipedia generation to be more skeptical than any before. Not less lazy, though, and I wonder how much that really is the issue (for everyone, in every generation).
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:11 AM on September 30, 2011

Wikipedia is very helpful, but many of the Wikipedia Generation go right back to Facebook after they've done their research on Wikipedia. Sorry if I sound cynical. I love youngsters; it's just that it takes a little growing up to get smart about the Internet.
posted by kozad at 11:17 AM on September 30, 2011

The oral tradition lives on via the text of the internet.
posted by stp123 at 12:13 PM on September 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

I wonder if this is more than an issue about maturity level. The internet is exposing future generations to a lot of unedited, un-peer reviewed material. I think it has the dangers of stunting the ability to filter legitimate from illegitimate source material. This needs to be stressed more in school.

Now, you have websites that are named something like "Infanthealthcouncil.com" or "The Center for Healthy Science" (I made these up) that may be agenda driven but present itself as unbiased scientific information resources. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish this from a legitimate source like the World Health Organization, if one is trying to get information about, say, the risks of vaccines.

Even worse is that the internet presents itself in a way that it's so easy to be lazy and judge by the number of hits on google search. If you do a google search for MSG, the first page is filled with many website about it's dangers as cancer/diabetes causing. Most is unfounded. But there's a risk of believing truth by consensus, because the blogs and propaganda overwhelm legitimate websites.

Even newspapers that SHOULD know better, are having difficulty with determining fact from fiction. How many times have newspapers jumped on a false story that spread to other news outlets that turned out to have originated from a misinformed blogger or twitter post?
posted by savvysearch at 5:00 PM on October 1, 2011

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