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'Young people lack critical thinking skills, leading to a struggle with news literacy'

Lurking among the heartfelt outpourings of grief for victims at the Manchester Evening News Arena were trolls posting fake reports, writes Alan Keane.

Alan Keane Account executive, PR and journalist

WHEN THE GUARDIAN notification pinged on my phone around 11pm on Monday night, reporting a serious incident at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the first thing I did was access the rolling news report on the app. At that stage there was very little to accurately report, so the Guardian had scant information available.

Twitter on the other hand… I don’t normally use Twitter as a source for news. Years of following Spurs and having my heart broken by ITK (In the Know) accounts claiming huge transfer deals have made me cynical. However I decided that with this being a breaking story, Twitter’s immediacy may prove useful.

Trolls posting fake reports

It was a useful exercise alright, but not in the way I had hoped. Lurking among the heartfelt outpourings of worry and grief for potential victims at the Manchester Evening News Arena were trolls posting fake reports, which scared and anxious Twitter users were then proliferating.

The two worst incidences, to my mind, were the reports of two explosions and a shooter that were circulating, as well as an image from an old army training video of a building with blown out doors that idiots were purporting to be exclusive pictures from Manchester.

There are obvious safety risks inherent in this sort of reckless posting, particularly the false reports of a shooter which could cause widespread panic in the MEN Arena should the social media savvy fans of Ariana Grande inside be checking Twitter to attempt to cut through the confusion.

Hope given to worried parents

Equally as bad as the scaremongering was the hope given to worried parents by the false reports that the Holiday Inn had taken in 60 children without guardians. Holiday Inn told the Guardian that they were providing support to people after the attack but could not confirm that they had large groups of children in their care.

The hope that the initial posts would have given to parents unable to contact their children who were at the concert was thus cruelly taken away.

The majority of people retweeting any of the fake news reports or images were doing so with the best intentions, attempting to get what they believed to be pertinent information to a wider audience. However there is a prevalent culture of wanting to be among the first to break a story that reaches beyond traditional media and is particularly evident on social media as people attempt to cultivate retweets and likes.

This Buzzfeed article highlights just some of the fake news circulating in the hours directly following the attack. The fake reports of missing persons using photos of people who weren’t in the UK, let alone Manchester are appalling and the posters need their heads examined and their phones crushed underfoot.

But social media is where young people get their news

The crux of the issue is that social media is where the majority of children, adolescents and young adults get their information today. Young minds indisposed to critical thought have a higher likelihood of taking posts at face value.

This isn’t meant to be condescending. It happens to all of us. As a young journalist at a national radio station during the 2012 Olympics, I hastily wrote a post for the station’s website about Barrack Obama’s tweet congratulating Katie Taylor on her gold medal.

The only problem was it was a fake account. There was an element of competition, in wanting to be the first with the story, which led to me writing the story without verifying it. That’s an inherent problem in a media landscape dependent on churning out rapid content. It’s type first, ask questions later.

A recent report showed that millennials are worryingly lacking in critical thinking skills, leading to a struggle with news literacy. This coupled with an ever-increasing amount of fake news means that now more than ever we need journalists and those in positions of power (here’s looking at you Mr Trump) to verify stories before pushing them out to what can be a gullible audience.

Just as I was about to close my phone in despair on Monday night, both at the real events in Manchester and the constructed fables, I started to see another kind of tweet appearing. Tweets from people debunking the fake news, as well tweets pleading with other social media users to verify their sources before posting.

I fell asleep feeling sorry for those caught up in the tragedy, but a little more hopeful about social media as a tool for disseminating information.

Alan Keane is an account executive at Plunkett PR and a journalism graduate.

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About the author:

Alan Keane  / Account executive, PR and journalist

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