Critical Thinking in the Facebook News Era

twitter-292994_640A recent survey from Pew Research showed that a growing number of Americans are getting their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This fact becomes alarming when paired with reporting from NPR and others this month which showed the proliferation of fake news sites created to take advantage of social media virality in an effort to profit from ad revenue generated by high click rates.

The Pew poll showed that 44% of Americans said they got news from Facebook. 18% said they “often” got their news from social media sites. Social media already has the potential to limit a user’s exposure to other viewpoints through the “echo chamber” effect; the introduction of purposely false news stories onto social media’s vast platform has led many to question if this has the power to swing elections, influence public opinion, and affect policy.

As the US moves further into the Knowledge Economy, information skills will become paramount for an individual’s success. However, the inability to evaluate information is already cited by professors across the country as a weakness of students today (Credo’s survey of faculty found only 16% who were confident in their students’ ability to evaluate information). As the sophistication and scope of fake news sites grows, the implications of this skills gap will expand too.

To date, the consistency of critical thinking and information literacy programs in higher education have been inconsistent at best. This has to change in order for academia to retain its relevancy in the 21st century.

The challenge for higher ed extends beyond the implementation of effective critical thinking, information literacy, and quantitative reasoning instruction. Institutions must teach these skills to all students, consistently across departments. Just as importantly, schools need to measure student outcomes accurately to identify gaps and inform improvements moving forward. This is known as “closed-loop assessment,” and it’s a term that is gaining prominence as more institutions are called on to demonstrate their value in an era of tightened budgets and public scrutiny.

Facebook and Google just announced a few small steps to limit the advertising revenue fake news sites will have access to, but the real work comes with building up the information skills of informed consumers. Critical thinking skills are essential tools for the modern world, and they should be taught in a broad, coherent, and effective way.

The 21st century offers unprecedented technological innovation and informational access. Harnessing these opportunities to teach the next generation of digital citizens could mean the difference between the knowledge economy and the click-bait economy.