Misinformation: Let's Study the Olds, Shall We?

4 min read

The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) released a study recently about Student's Civic Online Reasoning. The link shared here contains a link to a download page for the full study, and it's worth reading.

The Executive Summary somberly opens with a Serious Question (tm):

The next presidential election is in our sights. Many high school students will be eligible to vote in 2020. Are these first-time voters better prepared to go online and discern fact from fiction?

The conclusions shared in the Executive Summary are equally somber:

Nearly all students floundered. Ninety percent received no credit on four of six tasks.

I was able to capture secret video of Serious People reacting to this study. You're welcome.


All kidding aside, the "kids are bad at misinformation" cliche needs to be retired. It was never particularly good to begin with, and it hasn't gotten much better with age.

To be clear: if the adults in the building lack basic information literacy, it will be increasingly difficult for students to master these skills. Last I checked, high school sophomores didn't vote in the 2016 or 2018 elections. But their teachers, and their school administrators? They sure did.

Also, to be clear: if I had a nickel for every time I discovered a romance scam account only to see some of our educational and edtech "leaders" following the account, I could retire, right now. To date, I have refrained from naming names, but hoo boy my patience wears thin on some days.

But when we are studying misinformation, we need to stop doing it in a vacuum, and in a limited way. The recent SHEG study pulls in demographic information including race, gender, and maternal education levels, and this is a good start, but it's still incomplete.

Additional data points that are readily and publicly available, and that could be assembled once and reused indefinitely, include:

  • Voter turnout percentages for 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and -- eventually -- 2020 elections.
  • Voter results (Federal House and Senate, and Presidential) for 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and -- eventually -- 2020 elections.

These data can be obtained via postal code or FIPS code, and would provide an additional point of reference to results. Given that many studies of misinformation and youth are contextualized within the frame of civic participation, we should probably have some measure of actual civic participation that holds true across the entire country.

While this addition would provide some useful context, it still doesn't get any information about the adults in the system, and their skill levels. Toward that end, surveys should include as many adults within evaluated systems as possible: administrative and district staff; school board members; superintendents and assistant superintendents; curriculum staff and technical staff; building level principals and assistant principals; school librarians (ha, yeah, I know); and classroom teachers. Data should also note levels of participation across staff.

By including adults in the study, the relative skill level of the adults could be cross referenced against the students for whom they are responsible, and the overall levels of participation in national elections. Rate of participation from adults would also be an interesting data point.

This is a very different study than what SHEG put out. Getting adult participation would make recruiting participant districts even more time consuming -- but if we are going to move past where we are now, we need to do better than we're currently doing. All of us need to get better at addressing misinformation, and we're not going to get there by pointing fingers at youth or by taking too narrow a view of the problem. But we can't shy away from the reality that adults have played an outsized role in creating and perpetuating the success of misinformation. To fix the problems caused my misinformation, we need to study ourselves as well.