George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Helping Students Find the Truth in Social Media

Middle and high school students love interacting with social media, but how can they know if what they’re seeing and sharing is accurate?

March 10, 2022
Middle school students walk down school hallway with phone
SolStock / iStock

High school students are one with their smartphones, their nimble thumbs tapping their thoughts and desires for posting on social media accounts. As they access platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook, students read, view, and listen to up-to-the-minute content, responding quickly with words, images, or videos while sharing to their own accounts. With the rapid-fire pace of social media proliferation, many account keepers respond or share without confirming a post’s source or accuracy. Therefore, Stony Brook University School of Journalism recognizes that “the conflict between speed and accuracy [of information] has escalated.”

Students need to learn the skills of news and media literacy, and specifically social media literacy, so they can figure out what’s real, what’s exaggerated, and what’s just made up. Then these information consumers can reflect on what they experience in digital social media realms and decide whether to comment on, share, or ignore inaccurate or extreme information.

The ultimate goal is for students to develop an active role with social media and that they “interrogate information instead of simply consuming it.” Remember, Abraham Lincoln warned that we should not believe everything we learn through social media. (And, by the way, that statement is a fake.)

Impact of Social Media Content on Students’ Health

Digital tools play an active role in high school experiences, advancing academic and social growth. Students access social applications to chat with friends, share photos and videos, monitor school-related news, and do a host of other things. Duke University School of Medicine identifies media literacy as a health issue because young adults often make health-related decisions based on internet or social media applications, and the medical soundness of information can be questionable. And when students search digital posts about various physical conditions, the posts can negatively impact their behavioral health with undue anxiety and stress.

Social media literacy skills show teenage and younger students how to sensibly review data on social media sites rather than indiscriminately ingesting and propelling what they find out into the universe. They develop abilities to consider social posts to determine their value, veracity, and vitality; after all, trending topics are not always true. Steps to review social media are similar to those for reviewing websites.

Students can focus on two fields as they learn how to review social media posts before reacting to or sharing them—the person who’s posting and the message they’re posting.

Have Students Evaluate the Person or Group Posting the Information

Who authored or shared the social media message? Are they a reputable source? If you aren’t familiar with an account, review the profile for credible information. Look for inconsistencies that might make the account seem suspect, such as spelling variations on the name.

Who is Rep. Jack Kimble, and what is he posting? Truth or Fiction discusses this example of a fake person and false account on Twitter. 

TikTok is wildly popular, and there are numerous ways to create false identities and information. Here are eight common TikTok scams.

When was the social media account created? If the account is relatively new and has few followers or followers who lack profile photos, the account might be fake. Scammers often use stock images and other recycled memes and pictures rather than original photos and responses.

The Federal Trade Commission’s “Fake Followers” post shows the lengths that businesses will go to for strong social media followings. Ask these questions: What other affiliations does this person/account have, and whose ideas are they sharing, and why? Might this account be disseminating false information or promoting a one-sided agenda?

Here are some images of Instagram’s false information notices, examples of how Instagram identifies false information and fact-checked posts. Is this person in the location they’re tweeting/posting about, sharing firsthand information, or are they resharing from others? What expertise does the poster have on the topic?

Teaching students how to review websites for accuracy has many similarities to reviewing social media. Taking the time to reflect on the person or group who authored or shared a social media post can provide background information about a message’s authenticity, accuracy, and aim. If students aren’t confident in the messenger, they should review the message.

Have Students Closely Read the Message

What values and perspectives do the messages convey? Are these ideas polarizing, one-sided, or extreme? Fake social media accounts often are created to promote political or social points of view. Could there be a deeper message that the author is trying to convey?

Here’s a Facebook post that shared inaccurate scientific information about virus evolution.

Politifact shares more information about social media posts regarding virus virulence.

Does the message make sense, and can it stand on its own? Are there incomplete facts, or is there missing information? Could the person posting have manipulated ideas or images to promote this material? Check the message’s accuracy. This Twitter picture of a shark on a freeway is an example of an impossible image that went viral.

Look at the purpose of the posting to see if it’s meant to shock or persuade. Is it possible to interpret this information another way? Might the same message be shared with a different spin? This article about fake health news on social media is a summary of viral stories about inaccurate health information.

Can you validate this information from other sources? Even breaking news should be verified, which the Department of Homeland Security recommends for its own personnel who influence social media.

In the area of social media and breaking news, this dissertation shares how social media impacts television news, including the necessity to confirm the content’s accuracy. And here’s an example of how fake news on social media can have far-reaching consequences.

Whether we approve of social media or prefer in-person socializing, high school and younger students continue to like, share, and repost daily. So it’s important that young adults learn to process digital social information before doing anything else with it. A 2016 study by the Stanford University History Education Group found that 80 percent of the middle school students surveyed thought “sponsored content” such as ads on Facebook was online news.  

With instruction in the skills of media literacy, including social media, here’s hoping the next survey shows a marked improvement.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication Skills
  • Technology Integration
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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