A habit called “lateral reading” is a core part of any good fact-checking routine. It means opening up a bunch of tabs and doing multiple searches to verify the facts, source, or claims made in a piece of online information. So it seemed like great news when a new study from Poynter, YouGov, and Google indicated that Generation Z is adopting this technique more than any previous generation.
The study, released today by Google as the search engine team there rolls out several changes to how it handles misinformation, asked more than 8,000 people ranging in age from Generation Z (defined for this study as those 18 to 25) to the Silent Generation (68+), across seven countries, about misinformation and how they research questionable content online.
Essentially, the study concludes that younger people are more likely to think they may have unintentionally shared false or misleading information—often driven by the pressure to share emotional content quickly. However, they are also more adept at using advanced fact-checking techniques.
One-third of Gen Z respondents said they practice lateral reading always or most of the time when verifying information—more than double the percentage of boomers. About a third of younger people also said they run searches on multiple search engines to compare results, and go past the first page of search results.
Portions of the survey provide an interesting snapshot of how people of different ages, and in different locations, experience misinformation and think about their own role in stopping or spreading it: 62% of all respondents believe they see misinformation online every week, for instance. Gen Z, millennial, and Gen X readers are more confident in their ability to spot misinformation and more concerned that their close family and friends might believe something misleading online.
However, the study relies on participants to accurately report their own beliefs and habits. And the optimistic figures about Gen Z’s actual habits contrast pretty starkly with other findings on how people verify information online.
Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor who studies fact-checking practices, thinks he knows why that might be: when you’re trying to understand how people actually behave on the internet, “self-report,” he says, “is bullshit.”
“What people say they do versus what they do do?” he adds. “That discrepancy goes back to the earliest days of social psychology.” His own research has found that without intervention, younger people seldom use lateral reading or other advanced fact-checking techniques on their own.
In one recent study led by Wineburg and his team at Stanford, researchers wanted to learn whether an online course in fact-checking techniques could improve how college students verify information. Before the course, just three of the 87 students they tested engaged in lateral reading, meaning in this case that they left the website they were asked to evaluate to consult an outside source.
“If people spontaneously did [lateral reading], we’d all be in a lot better shape,” Wineburg said.
In a larger study, more than 3,000 high school students were asked to investigate a series of online claims. The results were pretty bleak: more than half the students tested believed that an anonymous Facebook video filmed in Russia contained “strong evidence” of US voter fraud. (Full disclosure: I was a participant in an earlier study from Wineburg’s team that observed the methods of fact checkers and compared them with those used by historians and Stanford undergraduates.)
Gen Z clearly uses the internet differently from previous generations. But young people are also susceptible to the same traps, weaponized misinformation tactics, and pressure to share that have fueled bad online practices for years.