Where is the source of the internet
"Source: Internet"? Digital news and information skills of the German population put to the test
Download the entire study (PDF)
During pandemics, economic crises or even election campaigns, it becomes particularly clear that functioning democracies depend on well-informed citizens. How well people are able to understand, categorize and question news can have an impact on whether people become susceptible to populists, lose trust in institutions or spread fake news millions of times over to friends and family. The news and information literacy of the population has increased enormously in importance in recent years and has become a critical factor for democracies. Because of the radical media change, journalists and media institutions have lost their influence as gatekeepers. Citizens are more on their own than ever. For each individual message, you have to decide anew each time whether you can trust a source or information. And whether they read, like, or even share or forward them.
It can be assumed that this profound change in Germany - as in many other European societies - will intensify in the coming years and lead to a number of political and social challenges. In order to be able to react, federal and state governments, education and media politicians: inside, schools and educational institutions and public broadcasters first need a more detailed picture of the situation. The decisive question is how well citizens are currently able to cope with the change in our media system and where people of different age groups have strengths or weaknesses. How well does the population manage to assess the reliability of sources apart from the traditional newspaper online or to recognize, classify and verify information at all? How well can PR content, disinformation or opinion contributions be recognized and differentiated? And how competent are people in identifying incomplete messages or conflicts of interest with sources and authors as such?
So far, there has been a lack of reliable data on these important information and news skills in the German population - and thus the basis for a targeted media education policy. There are already studies and surveys on “media competence”, but either such studies only look at schoolchildren and primarily their general PC skills, or they are based on surveys and self-reports that are not a reliable measure of competence. For this reason, together with a group of experts, we developed a news competence test that was carried out in autumn 2020 with a representative sample of the German-speaking population with internet access in Germany aged 18 and over. To this end, 4,191 internet users from 18 years of age were questioned and tested nationwide using online interviews (Computer Assisted Web Interviews - CAWI).
The test uses test questions and tasks to address the entire spectrum of digital news literacy, i.e. the ability to navigate in digital media environments, assess the quality of news and content, check information, discourse ability and knowledge of how the digital publics. It is one of the world's first tests on information and communication skills for an entire population.
A selection of the test results at a glance
1) Differences between disinformation, information, advertising and opinion are sometimes difficult to recognize
Some of the respondents find it difficult to differentiate between different communication intentions, i.e. between advertising, information, disinformation and opinion. 56% of those surveyed mistakenly considered an advertorial to be information, despite advertising. Only 23% correctly recognized that it was advertising. Incorrect information on Facebook also caused problems for the respondents: it was recognized by only 43% of the respondents, while 33% also saw incorrect information here. The distinction between opinion-based and fact-based articles is also critical. This is where it becomes difficult, especially with journalistic articles about political decisions. A third of those questioned thought a comment was fact-based reporting - another 15% were not sure.
2) Whether a source is trustworthy is often correctly assessed. Conflicts of interest are recognized less often
In contrast, the respondents were relatively good at assessing the neutrality or trustworthiness of sources. In various questions, at least 59% succeeded in doing this. However, despite further information, it is often difficult to identify the specific conflicts of interest. 65% of the respondents recognized that the managing director of an air travel portal as the author of a contribution on the subject of flying is not a neutral source. But only half of the respondents were able to name the specific conflict of interest.
3) The labeling strategies of social media platforms for disinformation have so far hardly been effective
Across the study, it has been shown time and again that platform-specific tips are sometimes ineffective. Whether the Facebook label for fact checking a false news or the Wikipedia reference on YouTube to finance a state broadcaster: a maximum of a quarter of those surveyed identified the mark as helpful or could classify the information correctly.
Similar problems also arise with labels on news sites. Only 7% of the respondents recognized the reference to an advertorial as an advertising label. And almost a third of the respondents identified the marking of an opinion article as a “column” as a helpful hint.
4) People question the independence of journalism from politics
The thought that there are common machinations between the media and politics is widespread: a quarter of the population shares “lying press” accusations. 25% agree with the statement that the media and politics work hand in hand to manipulate the opinion of the population (another 28% say partly / partly). 24% believe that the population in Germany is systematically lied to by the media (another 30% say partly / partly). In addition, only half of the respondents know that news about a federal minister may be published without the approval of the ministry.
In particular, the journalistic independence of public service broadcasting is misjudged. Only half of the respondents were able to correctly answer that members of the Bundestag cannot decide what the radio reports on. After all, 22% believe that there is political influence, a further 24% say “I don't know”. 35% of the respondents also think that public broadcasting is subordinate to the Minister of State for Culture and the Media (40% say “I don't know”).
5) Almost half passed the test, only 22% of the respondents achieved high overall competence values
To enable the results to be compared, we have developed a points system for the test. The respondents could achieve a maximum of 30 points if they answered all questions correctly. An average of 13.3 points were achieved, which is less than half of the possible points. A third of the respondents are in the middle. Only 22% achieve high or very high competence values and with 46% most of the respondents are in the area of (very) low digital news and information competence.
6) Younger generations more competent than older ones - however, depending on the educational qualification
Digital news literacy decreases with age: the older, the lower the competence values. Or vice versa: the younger, the more competent. In addition to age, schooling also plays a key role. Looking at the two together, it becomes clear, especially among 18-39-year-olds, how relevant the level of education is for news literacy: The highly educated respondents between 18 and 39 years of age are particularly news-literate, while the least news-literate respondents are people under 40 with a low level of education . In general, the following applies across all age groups: the higher the formal schooling, the higher the competence values and the higher the trust in journalism and politics.
7) Digital news literacy is also related to a basic democratic attitude
In addition to education and age, the basic democratic attitude of the respondents is also related to digital news and information literacy. In our model, we include the willingness of citizens to find out more about politics, appreciation for independent journalism, a certain basic trust in democracy and the media, and the ability to tolerate other opinions as part of this basic democratic attitude. People who tend to be negative towards these attitudes also show a lower knowledge of news and information.
8) Especially with AfD supporters: low digital communication skills inside
Supporters: inside different parties performed differently in our test: The best results were achieved by FDP supporters: inside, closely followed by the Greens. This is followed by supporters: inside the Left and the SPD. The followers of the CDU are pretty much in line with the overall average. The AfD supporters are in last place: inside. The big difference between the FDP, the Greens and the AfD suggests that it is not (only) party preference that is decisive here, but also education, age and / or basic attitudes, for example to an alleged clash between media and politics to have news literacy.
The overall evaluation of the data shows: Internet users already have some basic knowledge to navigate news-competent through a media environment that is comparatively new for many people. For example, more than half of the respondents were able to identify when a source is not neutral or not trustworthy. And most of them knew that you shouldn't forward an unknown video unseen. In general, the test participants showed a great interest in sharing accurate information and not spreading false news themselves.
However, all of this should not hide the fact that the respondents did mostly average to poorly overall in almost all competence areas and that there is often a lack of very specific knowledge and skills. In this respect, the results of this survey are also critical because they show that citizens have been left alone for far too long to find their way in increasingly complex media environments.
Better digital school and adult education are needed
The systematic neglect of digital skills is particularly evident in education policy - there is an urgent need to catch up in school as well as in adult education. As before, digital news and information skills are not a systematic part of the curriculum. In the secondary schools in particular, dimensions of media literacy that are related to political education and building trust in journalistic work have apparently largely been neglected in the past few decades. This is particularly dangerous since, according to the available data, young people with a low level of schooling form the socio-demographic group with the lowest levels of competence and at the same time showing particularly low levels of trust in politics and the media. Here we cannot yet foresee which other social conflict situations this polarization may result in.
However, the need for education is also high among adults and older people. In the test carried out, digital messaging skills fell on average with age - clearly and significantly. For this reason, there is an urgent need to think about digital news and information literacy more systematically in adult education and, for example, to include it in professional training opportunities.
Transparent journalistic offers are required
Overall, however, the poor test results do not just indicate an educational problem. It is just as clear that it has become more difficult for citizens to recognize reliable messages and to distinguish them from other forms of communication. This is primarily due to the media offerings themselves. Our results not only make it clear how important it is to convey the principles of journalism to readers in a comprehensible and transparent manner. It also shows that journalistic offers have to support users much better in classifying different forms of communication. For example, the separation of commentary and reporting is regulated in the Interstate Media Treaty, as is the labeling of advertising. However, the corresponding markings on news pages seem either not easy to see or not understandable. There is a need for improvement here. Because especially for those who find it more difficult to classify news articles, the impression of financially dependent and / or politically and opinion-driven journalism quickly arises. The consequence can be a decline in media confidence.
Better platform architectures are needed
The same applies to social media platforms, which also make it more difficult for citizens to deal responsibly with news and information. In the social networks, users reach fragments of information even more unsorted and competent navigation becomes all the more difficult. It is true that the current trend of marking problematic posts, providing them with additional information or even completely blocking accounts and content is welcome. But it does not change the basic functional logic of the platforms, which favors disinformation rather than restricts it. In addition, the respondents obviously had problems correctly recognizing and classifying additional information. Without plausible and clearly visible labels, transparency about the platform architecture and design decisions that really support users in their competent use, fact check labels alone are not effective.
The study is accompanied by a freely accessible self-test: der-newstest.de. This is largely based on the questionnaire of the representative study, but does not collect any data itself. The news test enables users to test for themselves how well they are newsworthy. It should encourage you to think critically about your own use of the media. In a playful approach, interested parties can test their knowledge in five competence areas and at the same time receive important information on navigating the digital media world. The result shows how users performed compared to the overall result in Germany.
The news test is freely accessible and may be linked, embedded and used in teaching.
The project "Digital News and Information Competence" is supported by the Federal Agency for Civic Education / bpb, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media (BKM), the Berlin-Brandenburg Media Authority (mabb) and the State Agency for Media NRW (LFM NRW) .
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