15 January 2020
This report presents findings about how college students conceptualize the ever-changing online information landscape, and navigate volatile and popular platforms that increasingly employ algorithms to shape and filter content. Researchers conducted 16 focus groups with 103 undergraduates and interviewed 37 faculty members to collect qualitative data from eight US colleges and universities from across the country. Findings suggest that a majority of students know that popular websites, such as Google, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, use algorithms to collect massive amounts of their personal data, but still find sites too useful to abandon. Many are indignant about websites that mine their clicks to sell them products, but resigned to the powers of an unregulated media environment. Some students, however, used practical strategies to protect their privacy and “confuse algorithms,” learned more often from peers than in classes. An abundance of choice for online information left many skeptical and distrustful of news encountered on algorithm-driven platforms. While some students worried about the “creepy” way ads follow them around the internet, others were concerned that automated decision-making systems reinforce societal inequalities. Discussions with students and faculty indicated that understanding and managing the torrent of information flowing through search engines and social media is rarely mentioned in the classroom, even in courses emphasizing critical thinking and information literacy. A critical review of a decade of research from Project Information (PIL) about how students conduct course and everyday life research, and what that means for educators and librarians provides context to these new findings. Four recommendations are provided for educators, librarians, administrators, and journalists working to promote truth and prepare students for a changing and challenged world.