Smarten up your online analysis to boost your £s

We’re launching a new drive on the Young Money Blog; encouraging young people to “read” online information intelligently. It’s crucial for your mental wellbeing, intellectual rigour and (yes) even prosperity, yet most of us have fallen into the trap of mindlessly consuming online news and information without ever questioning it. But we’re going to play our (small) role in getting young people to become mega-sceptic – starting today, with a look at how to analyse, evaluate and act smartly on information

Iona Bain

School children should be taught to recognise fake news – that’s the verdict of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills.

He reckons that the social media bubble and overflow of so-called “fake news” online justifies certain skills being taught on the official curriculum.

These skills – assessing, evaluating and reflecting on information given – are “critical” in today’s increasingly digital world where young people can no longer assume that the information they’re receiving is well-researched, balanced or even accurate.

“Exposing fake news, even being aware that there is something like fake news, that there is something that is written that is not necessarily true, that you have to question, think critically. That is very important.

This is something that we believe schools can do something about. Schools can do a lot to equip students with the kind of cognitive ability to access and analyse meaning, culture, practice & so on.”

Mr Schleicher’s comments are spot on. People in their twenties and thirties have struggled to adjust to a vastly different era in the second-half of their adult lives, going from the analogue age in their childhood and teens to almost complete online immersion today. It’s just not what we’re used to. Unlike the older generations, we don’t feel we can “opt” out of this new world. Having lived blissfully free of intrusive devices for most of our school days, we’re now having to contend with a whole new way of conducting our relationships, consuming information, organising our lives. No wonder we’re getting a great deal of it wrong.

According to shocking research on young people and news from Stanford University, the social media generation simply cannot distinguish between what is true and untrue online. Repeat a story enough times and we’ll start to believe it, even if we’re initially dubious. It doesn’t necessarily help that young people are turning away from newspapers amid distrust about their impartiality and accuracy. Research across the world is showing that young people are far less willing to trust print media than their parents. While journalists in established organisations are often trained, experienced and have legal obligations to be fair and correct in their reporting, young people seem far more willing to take a gamble in the online Wild Wild West of information.

So there are no prizes for guessing what the ramifications are for our finances. Newspapers don’t get financial coverage bang-on all the time, that’s for sure. They could make their sections more youth-friendly, for starters, but there is arguably a far better balance between commercial pressures and editorial purity in print than online. Basically, that means journalists who write about the right products, services or financial strategies for you are generally doing what they think is in YOUR best interests. And although there is an open (some might say revolving) door to the world of financial public relations, journos are generally under no obligation to report something unless they think you’d be better off knowing about it.

By contrast, much of the online financial news world is nothing but unreconstructed click-bait, designed to get you in so you can be quickly monetised. A good example of this is the frankly incessant advertising, sponsored posts and affiliate links that now dominate many financial blogs. It’s a subject I will cover again, but ultimately any blog that puts money-making first, rather than independent and thoughtful writing, cannot be totally trusted. If I get something wrong, it’s an honest mistake, but if someone is paid or incentivised to write something that could be misleading for your finances…that’s unforgivable in my book.

The problems that online overload pose for our finances go beyond dedicated financial news. Imagine the typical social media feed of a 20 something; who wants to bet that most of what appears is an advert for something? Beauty products, holidays, diet plans…social media has become the most dazzling shop window that any marketer could possibly have dreamt of. But unfortunately, we pay a high price to live a vicarious lifestyle online through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook; a tendency to put our shopping on credit, dismiss the option to save for what we really want and neglect our financial security.

If this state of affairs doesn’t unnerve you, it should do. Fortunately, you can also rectify things, starting with this very handy infographic (THAT I MADE!) on how to be more rigorous when looking at information;

Think smartly

And here are some additional tips;

  1. The first question to ask is – what am I looking at? The truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth? Information provided by one organisation or website is never complete (even mine!) so put yourself outside your comfort zone; read a view from the opposite end of the political spectrum, search for the contrasting view on Google, and diversify your sources AT ALL TIMES to ensure you’re getting a fuller picture.
  2. Uncover any implicit assumptions that may be wrapped up in what you are reading, seeing, hearing; for instance, that you’re being addressed as a particular member of a socio-economic group that you don’t really fit into. Advertisers love putting us in discreet boxes, but you are you, with your own autonomy. Likewise, some news outlets love to make their readers feel they conform to a right-minded group and that you adopt uniform values and beliefs that are the starting point for all their coverage. But you are entitled not only to change your mind, but to hold views from across the board on all manner of topics.
  3. Cross-check your perceptions with those of other people. Some of your friends posting about politics or economics or finance on Facebook may have grounds to say what they’re saying because they work in those fields, or have made it their life’s vocation to champion those causes. But they may also have a degree of tunnel-vision – checking their viewpoints with others is one way to ensure you don’t get too caught up in an individual’s own narrative (however persuasive).
  4. Ultimately, you have to decide what insights, interpretations, principles, opinions, lessons, ideas and even conclusions justify whatever belief you hold – even if it’s only to yourself! This is not an invitation to be so open-minded that you let the draught in, to quote Groucho Marx. You have to do your best with the information that is available – just be aware that everything you read may have a hidden agenda, and it’s certainly better to be sceptical than gullible.
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