Check out Nik's great blog on the impact of 'fake news'!


By Niklas McKerrell, aged 17

The ‘new age’ of media literacy came without little forewarning; emerging from a period where the term ‘fake news’ was rarely- if ever- used in day to day discourse, we have entered one where a US Presidential Counsellor justifies lies as ‘alternative facts’, and the Oxford Dictionary issues ‘post truth’ as their word of the year.

Young people had already been developing buffers to fake news- or at least its concept- long before it became systemic. Take ‘the dress’ in early February 2015- a viral debate over whether a dress designed to fool the eye was blue and black, or white and gold. Or social media popularisation of MTV hit series ‘Catfish’, where those who find online love are led to meet the real person they have been talking to, highlighting the problems of false identities online. The culture of social media has fostered a mindset whereby we do not digest information at face value, even if we don’t necessarily associate this tendency as being ‘critical of our sources’.

This however doesn’t mean we are inoculated from its impact, as we often forego the factual integrity of an article if it aligns with our views. This has been seen to be the bulwark of the ‘alt-right’, but the fact that the left are also guilty of sharing and spreading fake news shows that it’s as much of a way to perpetuate lies and propaganda, as it is an indication of our failures in checking the integrity of the articles we share. Take the recent article claiming that Donald Trump altered a clause of the US Constitution so that the protection of all ‘persons’ was changed to ‘citizens’, a claim dispelled by independent fact checker Snopes.

The way that young people consume information is changing, and in many ways this is helping to curb the spread of fake news. Buzzfeed, for example, requires its users to be ‘active’ consumers; as well as news articles, it uses polls, discussion sections and puzzles to form a reciprocal relationship with its users. It has also recently released its own manual on how to recognise fake news, complete in Buzzfeed’s familiar bold and interactive style.

Designed for the Internet, for many critics Buzzfeed’s popularity is symptomatic of the demise of traditional news outlet for ‘Facebook-style’ news sources. But this is not necessarily the case. For many young consumers, Buzzfeed sits along the Guardian app, FT, Economist Espresso and the BBC on their phones. Of course, for some, Facebook groups such as the ‘LadBible’ will be their only source of news- providing a very narrow outlook of current affairs. But I think the fact that young people are recognised for their ability to juggle various social media platforms should mean that their ability to access various news sources does not come of massive surprise.

Fake news clearly presents a problem, primarily because for many young people there is so much ambiguity over exactly what it represents. The fact that the term is used interchangeably by US politicians to describe news they don’t like and by companies such as Facebook trying to curb the spread of false articles exacerbates this misunderstanding.

Media platforms and news organisations have a responsibility to set out the problem, but intervention should not go beyond this, especially as the role of an arbiter raises its own issues. Similarly, schools have a responsibility to improve and enforce their existing teaching on information literacy, but I don’t believe that this should be extended to online fake news specifically. A teacher distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ websites runs the risk of creating a passive online user, when fake news requires an active, critical online user for its problems to be curbed.