It can sometimes feel as though digital natives are impervious to misinformation. At least that’s what some think.
But TikToker Jules Terpak is keeping her Gen Z peers humble.
“We grew up making fun of our parents’ and grandparents’ falling for spam emails, but every single day I see young people falling for false narratives that can change their entire worldview,” Terpak says in a TikTok video about misinformation.
Terpak often uses blunt commentary like that on her TikTok account. Her goal is to remind other members of Gen Z that just like their baby boomer parents — who didn’t grow up with the internet and have had to navigate conspiracies like QAnon — they’re just as susceptible to the internet’s half-truths and false narratives.
Terpak is among a growing contingent of TikTokers and organizations that is trying to help young people cut through the noise and find the truth on social media.
“Misinformation is unarguably one of the biggest issues of our times for youth trying to understand the world and how to navigate life,” Terpak said. “Whether it be checking if a statement is correct or if what you just watched is even from this time period, there’s a lot more” verifying for young people to do.
Growing up online, it’s easy for younger generations to feel immune to misinformation sometimes, Terpak suggests in a recent video. But experts agree that young people are equally susceptible to confirmation biases and that, with their digital expertise, they can also amplify incorrect information like their older counterparts.
“Misinformation is just so fundamentally human," said Abbie Richards, 25, an independent researcher who focuses on TikTok. "The way it affects us might differ between generations, but the fact that it does is pretty universal."
Young people and the extremely online face another obstacle when it comes to sharing information, especially during major world events — the pressure to post.
Organizations like The News Literacy Project have made it part of their missions to reassure young people that just because they don’t post about an issue, like Black Lives Matter or the conflict in Ukraine, it doesn’t mean they don’t care.
Peter Adams, the senior vice president of education at The News Literacy Project, said showing solidarity with a cause online can be “a very real way to express sympathy with a political cause” and help influence support, but he said pressure can sometimes lead people to amplify disingenuous or misleading posts.
“Folks who aren’t sure about the provenance of a photograph or a piece of footage should feel fine not amplifying that,” Adams said.
TikTok's role in the spread of misinformation
TikTok has become one of the social media platforms most frequented by young people, as well as a primary news source for some of them.
That also means that because many zoomers get their news on TikTok, they’re not always fact-checking the short videos, leaving them susceptible to misinformation.
The conflict in Ukraine is a prime example of how misinformation has spread on the platform. Videos purporting to show the conflict or showing troops engaged in combat have inundated “For You” pages. Because you don’t need to follow an account to have one of its videos show up in your feed, inaccurate videos — posted by well-meaning users or by bad actors preying on users’ emotions — have run rampant since the start of the war.
“Gen Z and younger millennials grew up embracing strangers, and now on a platform like TikTok, the vast majority of content we consume are from those who we don’t seek out by choice,” Terpak said. “Mixed with the platform’s quick-paced nature and bottomless feed, there’s a lot more to assess the validity of on TikTok.”
Gen Z and younger millennials grew up embracing strangers, and now on a platform like TikTok, the vast majority of content we consume are from those who we don’t seek out by choice
— TikToker Jules Terpak
In a video posted to her TikTok account, where she has more than 536,000 followers, Richards documents a trend on the platform in which users justify sharing inaccurate videos because it “raises awareness” for the invasion in Ukraine.
She shares how a video that has 6 million views is actually a clip using audio from an explosion in Beirut in 2020 to make it seem like the footage is from present day Ukraine.
“Awareness should not come at the cost of spreading misinformation,” Richards says in the video.
Like those of many other platforms, TikTok’s algorithm, which promotes videos with higher engagement, boosts videos like those, which could also be a primary factor in how younger people are served inaccurate content.
"Our Community Guidelines prohibit content that contains harmful misinformation, hateful behavior, or promotion of violence, and our actions to uphold these policies include removing violative content, banning accounts, and suspending access to product features like livestream," TikTok said in a statement posted to its newsroom.
TikTok says it also partners with fact-checking organizations, like the news outlet Agence France-Presse, to suss out and remove inaccurate information.
Adams added that a combination of nihilism and shortening attention spans is also a factor why this generation, like those before it, sometimes skips the verification process.
“If your primary way of [consuming news] is input-grazing through TikTok or Snapchat or some other platform, there’s an impulse to just kind of react in passing and not really interrogate the source,” Adams said.
In the same way research is needed into how misinformation affects generations differently, so too is there a need for research about how different platforms affect its consumption.
Terpak has used her platform on TikTok, where she has more than 270,000 followers, as a commentary channel. But she has also made videos reminding Gen Z how its digital literacy can sometimes fall flat.
One video she made — about a misleading yet viral infographic on Instagram and how Gen Zers can be just as bad as boomers when it comes to amplifying misinformation — has more than 750,000 views on TikTok.
Terpak and other experts say highly emotional moments and concepts that align with viewers’ biases can trick people into believing a post without verification.
Although younger social media users may feel confident they can pick out fact from fiction, experts say that’s not always the case — but there is a desperate need for research into how the generations are affected differently by misinformation, Richards said.
A study by the polling firm College Reaction found that 69 percent of 868 Gen Zers polled said it is somewhat or very easy for them to distinguish real news from misinformation, while half said older generations have a “very difficult” time distinguishing the two.
However, that confidence may be misplaced, according to the experts who spoke to NBC News.
Richards cited a study by British researchers that found that people begin to believe conspiracy theories at age 14.
“At that point you don’t really have a strong sense of how the world works. I think when I was that age I probably bought into some of that stuff,” Richards said. “On TikTok, one of the biggest problems I see is conspiracy theories, and it could be because it’s such a young audience.”
Terpak said that although she believes her generation is more skeptical about what it sees online, it is susceptible to being duped no matter the topic.
“To be frank, we’re susceptible to misinformation about any and all topics, but I don’t think that’s new to younger generations. It’s just on an exacerbated scale because of the internet,” she said.
Resisting the pressure to post
As major events have played out in recent years, like the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020 and now the conflict in Ukraine, many zoomers feel their social media platforms are where their activism is most on display.
Because of this, there can also be pressure to post when major world events unfold — even if posters aren’t sure what they are sharing is accurate.
“If a world-changing event is breaking out and you’re posting an energy drink ad, there’s some moral questions at play,” Terpak said.
Gen Z, which is defined by Pew Research as anyone born after 1997, in particular is walking a tightrope when it comes to what it shares as the world homes in on a particular story or crisis, according to Richards.
The stress of walking that line and the heightened emotionality of a crisis can sometimes push the verification step onto the back burner.
“We as a culture are having a hard time finding the balance between choosing silence — acknowledging silence as oppression and that you have to speak out about issues — but simultaneously making sure that what we’re saying is correct,” Richards said.
At the start of the conflict in Ukraine, The News Literacy Project tweeted advice for people who felt they would be criticized for their silence about the war.
Its first piece of advice: “Not sharing does not = not caring.” It followed that line by reminding its followers that “not amplifying misinfo = caring” and that it was OK to log out of social media.
Adams said young people who want to avoid sharing misinformation should begin practicing advocating for their right not to post and to abstain from the possible spread of misinformation.
Young people should post “something like ‘I’m going to stay quiet to let the expert voices take the floor during this difficult time’ and kind of normalize that as a statement of support,” he said.