CHICAGO

My son, his best friend, Dave, and I were chatting over a pizza last weekend when Dave dropped some (absolutely incorrect) information: The elderly are forgoing nursing homes for cruise ships, because the room and board cost about the same, plus you get entertainment and travel.

Again—this is not a real phenomenon. A few healthy, affluent retirees have spent a few years this way, but the cruise ship industry is in no way prepared to offer extended care for masses of frail elderly adults with complex medical conditions like chronic diseases and memory problems.

When I prompted our friend for more information, he said it made sense because cruise ships have onboard medical staff and morgues.

When further pressed—in my son’s spirited retelling, I’m described as in a rabid state, pouncing on his innocent pal—Dave said he’d definitely read a news story about it.

Errrrr, actually, he knew he’d definitely seen it somewhere.

Mmmmmm, maybe on Reddit?

My son acts like at this point I had fire blazing from my eyes. I’ll only admit that I was alarmed.

Dave is a bright young man who attended an excellent high school, just completed his first semester of college at a fancy East Coast university and is generally thoughtful and curious about the world.

But he passed on information he believed was fact because he saw “something” on a news aggregation and message board site, or “somewhere.”

This gem about retiring to a cruise ship has been around since at least 2003, according to the fact-checking site Snopes.com. It started out as a bit of viral e-lore, and there have been a few examples of real-life extended stays. But today, otherwise legitimate news-gathering organizations post branded, sponsored-content “articles” (these are paid advertisements) about how to plan such a retirement alongside real news that was reported by professional journalists and vetted by editors.

I’m not picking on a kid I care about—he’s just an example of how incredibly ill-equipped our young people are to navigate an internet that’s loaded with fake news, junk science and other “information” designed to fool them and everyone else.

In a 2018-19 national assessment of U.S. high school students, researchers at Stanford University found that two-thirds couldn’t tell the difference between reported news stories and advertisements set off by the words “sponsored content” on the homepage of a popular news website.

And more than one-third of middle school students in the U.S. said that they “rarely” or “never” learned how to judge the reliability of sources, according to an analysis of 2018 survey data from The Nation’s Report Card by the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based nonprofit that promotes the teaching of evidence-based reasoning skills.

But while it’s clear that students must be taught media-literacy skills, there are few teachers prepared to do so. Many people, not just teachers, tend to believe that their maturity and life experience make them naturally media literate—i.e., not likely to fall for fake news or bad sources of information.

A small 2011 study of the effectiveness of teacher training on media literacy found that eight hours of in-person training—quite a lot by the common standards of professional development—prepared someone to pass on such skills. And the study also showed that, like anyone else, teachers need systematic, direct instruction on media literacy, and it must be practiced over time.

The bright side is that it’s not rocket science. For the average reader, becoming media literate is generally simple: Find some good sources, check bold assertions and be aware of any fine print, like the basis of an author’s expertise or their potential financial interest.

Now, no one can check every fact in every bit of text they read, but a high level of skepticism is warranted in this time of newsy advertisements and active disinformation campaigns. If it sounds too good (or too bad) to be true, it probably is. And since those types of pieces of “information” are what drive clicks, views and “reader engagement,” they’ve proliferated.

Do yourself and your loved ones a service, bookmark a few key fact-checking websites and use them regularly (an extensive list can be found in the appendix of the Reboot Foundation’s report, at reboot-foundation.org/fighting-fake-news).

Just try not to burn your less-informed friends and family with the fire from your newly illuminated eyes.

Esther Cepeda writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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