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Half of all students in Compulsory Secondary Education cannot differentiate “fake news”

According to a UC3M study with a Leonardo Grant from the BBVA Foundation


50% of students in Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO, in its Spanish acronym) are unable to tell the difference between fake news and real news about the same topic. This has been revealed during research carried out by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) with the support of a Leonardo Grant for Researchers and Cultural Creators from the BBVA Foundation. 

La mitad de los estudiantes de ESO no distingue las “fake news”

The results of this research project, called ALFAMADESO and coordinated by a lecturer from the UC3M’s Department of Communication and Media Studies, Eva Herrero, were presented at a conference about media literacy that was recently held at the University’s Madrid Puerta de Toledo Campus. “Students between the ages of 11 and 16 are constantly using their mobile devices, accessing the internet and information, but they are not mature enough to do so. Accompanying them has nothing to do with policing or banning them, it is about giving them the resources and tools they need so that they can tell the difference between valid information for themselves and have a more critical view of the things they see, hear, and read. It is not just a matter of accompanying within families, as schools have to introduce this skill in an interdisciplinary manner across all subjects,” says Professor Herrero. 

According to this paper, nearly 60% of all students surveyed said that they knew how to tell the difference between real and fake news. Instead, “when we showed them four headlines (2 real and 2 fake), 50.21% guessed correctly and 49.78% did not. In particular, almost 60% recognised (guessed correctly) the fake headline in the case of two COVID-19 headlines, but the ratio was reversed when it came to news about an event, as 52.6% failed to identify a hoax about illegal immigration,” notes Herrero. 

Six out of ten students do not know the names of any journalists

The practice of making access to information available to everyone opens the door to an unprecedented flow of content. However, this does not necessarily translate into quality information. “64% of high school students are unable to name a single journalist. Among those who can name one, they are professionals who have a large presence on social media, such as Jordi Évole or Sara Carbonero”, the researcher explains. “This reflects the reality that teenagers’ media references are not, with a few exceptions, journalists or media professionals, who are supposed to be filters when sharing information, that has been checked and verified by difference sources and that are (or should be) transparent about those sources”. ºº

Teenagers follow current affairs on social media and their media references are influencers. “The most popular networks within this age group are Instagram, with 64.5%, and TikTok, with 10.4%, followed by WhatsApp, 9%, and YouTube, 5%. Respondents mentioned up to 14 different social networks and 31 influencers who they usually look to when consuming media,” says Herrero, who also points to a gender bias: “Up to 463 different influencers were mentioned in the surveys, more than 85% of which were men. Although four women (Marta Díaz, Rivers, Paula Gonu and Dulceida) appear in the Top 10 influencers overall, when asked, only men, no women, appeared in their Top 10. In other words, female referents were only included in the Top 10 of the total sample due to responses provided by women”.

The relationship with content is superficial and impulsive, says the researcher: “We asked them and found that they share things without clicking on the news article, they simply see the headline or the photo which “entices you”, which appeals to basic emotions.” This coincides with one of the perceptions that teachers—the project interviewed head teachers, subject heads, and teachers at public centres in all of the autonomous communities and in Ceuta and Melilla in depth—share: “ESO students compulsively consume audio-visual material without pausing to digest its contents. This makes it easier for everything to be believed because of a lack of critical capacity and a lack of searching for other sources. Thus, the influencer becomes a source of authority.” 

According to the Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE, in its Spanish acronym), 70% of the population between the ages of 10 and 15 have access to a mobile phone, their main way of accessing the internet. However, the universalisation of the platform has not matched the development of skills that enable them to deal with the large amount of information they receive daily in a skilful and critical manner, which is precisely what media literacy seeks to do and the reason that it is part of the ESO curriculum.

Guide for ESO teachers

In partnership with, a Guide for ESO teachers has been created which provides resources for teachers to work on media literacy in an interdisciplinary way in the classroom. This guide is freely available on the project’s website: