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Fake news is all the rage these days. Actually, let me rephrase, fake news is the cause of all the rage these days.

There’s plenty of evidence out there that suggests that fake news is, at the very least, partially to blame for growing tensions and conflict that we see between social groups in western countries, especially in the United States

The logic of this checks out; if an ever-growing segment of the population believes the endless amount of fake stories being pumped out from sources across the internet, then it’s easy to see why they are becoming upset with those who don’t. It’s also easy to feel superior to those who regularly fall for what may seem to you to be obviously fake stories as they share them on Facebook or Twitter.

I don’t necessarily have much to add to the conversation on fake news on the whole. However, I was recently made aware of a smaller, more focused area of this larger discussion wherein I do think I have something to contribute. Namely, it’s about the ways that college and university students are increasingly making themselves susceptible to falling for fake news.

Recently, in a media course that I’m taking this semester, we had a lecture on fake news that looked at media and scientific literacy. In it, the professor mentioned that one way we are seeing people’s media and scientific literacy falter is by the way they interact with academic studies and scholarly articles.

More specifically, they said that what we have seen throughout the pandemic is people glomming onto individual academic studies and articles because their findings support the opinion they held prior to reading it, and not considering the broader academic context.

When I heard that, the first thought that went to my head was, “well isn’t that exactly how many university students write their papers?”.

It’s fair of me to say that the vast majority of students don’t exactly approach essay writing with the highest level of scientific rigor. It’s certainly common for students to just search a couple of keywords related to the essay topic, download PDFs of a few articles and go from there. Part of that is certainly our fault (there might be more time for vetting sources if we wouldn’t put off our essays until right before they’re due) but at least a little blame could be given to professors and TAs on this one too.

While there are many great professors who offer essay writing seminars and other support, particularly in early year classes when essay writing is a foreign concept to most students, these seminars rarely focus on how to properly gather and assess your sources.

Sure, we all learn argument structure, what citation style they prefer we use, and how to write good introductions and conclusions, but aside from making sure we include the right number of them, little attention is given to sourcing.

I’m sure the reasoning for this is just because the stakes are so low (I think we can all agree that no groundbreaking insights have or ever will come from a first-year essay). However, it seems that it could have longer lasting, and larger impacts.

Many think the point of university is to get a degree in four years so you can be considered for a wider range of jobs. Though that is partly true, there are more general life skills to be learned throughout your time as an undergraduate student. One of the bigger ones is critical thinking and analysis. Even though that’s certainly facilitated through seminars, forum post discussions, and even exams, this issue of the way that many students approach essay research and writing should not be ignored.

So despite the fact that focusing on academic and scientific literacy might not be the most exciting or seemingly worthwhile topic to many, in this time of increasing misinformation, it might be more important than ever before.