Sam Wineburg is a professor of education at Stanford University and founder of the Stanford History Education Group. Along with Nadav Ziv, a research associate, Wineburg penned a telling essay for the Los Angeles Times where he outlined what happens when TikTok is your main source of news and information.
Newsflash: It has become this for many people.
TikTok, along with Instagram, “is where Gen Z searches for information and entertainment.” According to recently released internal data from Google, nearly 40% of Gen Zers prefer using TikTok and Instagram as their search engines.
In an article for Adweek, Wanda Pogue wrote of asking her Gen Z daughter and her friends about their behavior on TikTok, and they agreed with this idea. “It’s the platform they go to now when searching for anything, from the highest-rated beauty products and clothing trends to the best restaurants in the area or recipes to try.” She adds: “Gen Z prioritizes engaging with authentic content. They want to see a visual representation of something rather than read about it.”
The problem? Again, from Wineburg: “They often come up with a blurry mix between fact and fiction.” Even more problematic? Just because Gen Z grew up with social media “doesn’t mean they know how to evaluate the information they find there.”
A Stanford survey found that the ability to separate digital fact from fiction was “bleak.” For example, a 2021 survey of more than 3,000 Gen Zers by the Stanford History Education Group asked them
… to evaluate a grainy video that claimed to provide evidence of U.S. voter fraud. The video was actually shot in Russia. Students could find this out by searching online for the words “Democrat 2016 voter fraud video,” which quickly brings up links to Snopes and the BBC debunking the claim. Yet the majority of those surveyed were duped, concluding that the video constituted “strong evidence” of American election tampering.
As Wineburg and Ziv point out, when it comes to TikTok, along with restaurant recommendations and lip-syncing snippets you’ll also find “false claims stating that COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue and that crisis actors faked the Uvalde school shooting.”
In other words, news from TikTok is a hot mess.
So what can be done?
Wineburg offers some interesting angles for educators, such as using:
- Math classes to help students understand how algorithms curate the content they see on social media platforms and how TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms “sacrifice credibility in order to keep users’ eyeballs glued to the screen.”
- Economics courses to help students analyze the platforms’ business models and how “profit motives align with the promotion of viral information.”
- English courses to demonstrate how even small variations in search terms generate vastly different results. As Wineburg points out: “Search ‘vaccines’ on TikTok and you’ll be directed to information from the World Health Organization. Try ‘vaccines heavy metals’ and you’ll find a slew of videos spouting spurious claims.”
I’ve often pointed out that Gen Zers have almost unlimited access to information and almost no access to wisdom. They seem unable – and at times even unwilling – to identify misinformation. Yet when young adults are spending between seven and eight hours a day online, translating into 3,000 hours per year,
… the inability to separate fact from fiction becomes acute.
James Emery White
Sam Wineburg and Nadav Ziv, “What Happens When TikTok Is Your Main Source of News and Information,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2022, read online.
Samantha Delouya, “Nearly Half of Gen Z Is Using TiktTok and Instagram for Search Instead of Google, According to Google's Own Data,” Insider, July 13, 2022, read online.
Wanda Pogue, “Move Over Google. TikTok Is the Go-To Search Engine for Gen Z,” Adweek, August 4, 2022, read online.
“The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2019,” Common Sense Media, October 28, 2019, read online.
“You Asked, We Answered: Do the COVID-19 Vaccines Contain Aborted Fetal Cells?” Nebraska Medicine, August 18, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.