Before the internet was ubiquitous, being blissfully unaware of a topic was pretty excusable. But now everyone has fast access to Google in their pockets, complex topics that would have taken hours of library research or academic study can be accessed within seconds.
That’s good in a way, but the way search engines can be manipulated leads to two problems: misinformation being easily spread and a superficial amount of information making things appear far simpler than they actually are.
That’s pretty troubling when you think about all the problems facing the world right now: access to phones just makes it that bit more difficult to say those three little words: “I don’t know.”
That’s the findings of a survey from our sister magazine The Week Junior, in any case, who this week commissioned a survey of British adults to discover how much they know about current affairs topics. They found that 58% of adults admitted to “relying on search engines when faced with complex topics in social situations to avoid embarrassment”.
The topics most likely to be misunderstood by adults, according to the survey, are:
1. Russian foreign policy
2. International finance markets
3. The Israel / Palestine conflict
4. Syrian conflict (53% were unaware that Damascus is the capital of Syria)
5. Islamic State (just 38% knew that ISIS and Daesh are the same thing)
6. Grammar schools / academic reforms
8. Brexit (20% believe George Osborne is still Chancellor and 46% couldn't name Philip Hammond)
10. The US election
None of those are simple to grasp, frankly, and I’ll happily put my hands up and admit to being patchy on a bunch of those myself. The problem I see is that the majority of them have deceptively simple answers that could be consumed from a quick Google search, and plenty are ripe for conspiracy theories.
It doesn’t help that Facebook has a serious fake news problem, either. Indeed, it’s got so bad that outgoing president Barack Obama called out the social network while on the campaign trail in Michigan. “The way campaigns have unfolded, we just start accepting crazy stuff as normal and people if they just repeat attacks enough and outright lies over and over again,” he said. “As long as it’s on Facebook, and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it, and it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
The Week Junior has commissioned a number of videos to explain particularly tricky topics to curious youngsters. But perhaps, overall, we shouldn’t be tired of experts after all.