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Fake News: Are More Educated People Better at Spotting It?

Detecting-Fake-News.jpgYou might think that the more education you have, the better you would be at spotting fake news when you read it online. After all, colleges and universities have the goal of helping students become better critical thinkers.


Are more educated people less susceptible to fake news?


Data from this study: Stanford researchers find students have trouble judging the credibility of information online, and others (The Effect of Higher Education on Ability to Discern Fake News) paint a discouraging picture about college students and their ability to identify fake news.  Either we're not doing a good enough job at teaching this skill or the creators of fake news articles are very good at what they do (or both).


If you're teaching students about correlations, this topic provides an excellent starting point.  I would first ask students if they think more educated folks like themselves are better at spotting fake news.  My guess: they would think that they are better. 


So what's the correlation then? That of course depends on how you gather the data in your study. You might ask students to get into groups and design a study to find this info. Exactly what would they measure?


Let's suppose they create an online study that presents respondents with 10 news stories and they're asked:


How true or fake do you think this article?


  • 1 = definitely true news,
  • 5 = definitely fake news

Respondents are also asked to indicate how many years of education they have completed.  When you put their answers together on the 10 questions, you calculate a "Ability to Spot Fake News" score: 1 = very low ability,  10 = excellent ability.


How should the data look?


Playing Around With Data


Below is an Excel sheet showing a perfect, positive correlation between two variables. A scatterplot is also shown.  Here's an activity for your students:


  1. Click in the cell and rename "Variable 1" to something like "Years of Education"
  2. Change "Variable 2" to "Ability to Spot Fake News".
  3. Click any number and you can change that number to something else.

As students change the data in the cells, the correlation and the scatterplot will change.


Ask them to do two things:


  1.  Change the data in the cells so that the correlation reflects what researchers actually found: essentially a zero correlation between years of education and ability to spot fake news.
  2. Change the data to reflect the possibility that more education actually leads to a poorer ability to spot fake news.



Students are going to have fun with this - and learn a lot about correlations by playing around with the data.



Wondering how I embedded an Excel sheet that students can edit into a webpage? You can also do this with MindTap. Activities like these can be found all over the Higher Ed Community.

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Many thanks to Cengage Faculty Partner @mike_lafreniere for his assistance with the Excel Online embed.