Reading Beyond the Headlines

It’s been about six weeks since this story hit, and it went away so quickly that you may have forgotten it (or missed it the first time around). But it’s worth quickly revisiting the fact that Princeton researchers found that… “Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80 percent of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”

The headlines were short-lived—although for that small amount of time they definitely got some attention. As Slate reported, “An uncritical three-paragraph write-up in Time …pulled in 21,000 Facebook likes and counting.”

Upon a slightly closer review, readers realized that the story had no legs. The researchers conducted nothing more than a shakily constructed thought exercise comparing social networks to infectious diseases, and suggested that both the growth of such networks and their decline might follow disease patterns. It happened to MySpace, so it’ll happen to Facebook, right?

Well, maybe. But probably not.

The paper is an interesting, if slightly misleading, thought experiment. The authors lay out their reasoning in their paper, and as an academic paper should be, it is open to criticism. But the resulting headlines and stories too often didn’t have nearly enough information to suggest to readers that they shouldn’t go short the stock immediately.

There is a parallel situation in education data, and particularly in online and blended learning data because the field is still so new. The numbers and theories are often not nearly as well-grounded as the headline and first paragraph may make them seem. The good media outlets make this clear, but too often readers who don’t dig will get an incomplete—or inaccurate—impression.

The Slate article ends by quoting the headlines on the study by three well-known sources, and then observing:

“It’s an old journalistic trick: Just add the words “research” or “study” to a sensational claim for instant credibility. Best of all, [the media are] absolved of any responsibility for verifying its truth, since everyone knows journalists aren’t qualified to dispute scientific findings.”

It happens in education too. Don’t fall for it.