The assumption: Digital and media literacy protect people from believing false information, including fake publications.
In fact: A person’s desire to confirm his point of view makes him susceptible to fakes. This cognitive distortion even affects people who work professionally with information.
Kirill Bryanov and Victoria Vzyatysheva, researchers at the HSE Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics in St. Petersburg, studied factors that influence people’s perceptions of fakes, as well as their ability to distinguish false information from reliable. The researchers identified three groups of factors: the characteristics of the information, the individual characteristics of the people receiving the information and interventions that motivate people to check the news for accuracy. It also turned out that a person’s tendency to want to confirm his point of view has a great influence on the perception of false information. Moreover, it turned out that even media employees are subject to this cognitive distortion, although they are generally better than ordinary people at distinguishing fakes from the truth, thanks to their stronger fact-checking skills. The results of the study were published in the journal PLOS One.
Lies are not a new phenomenon in mass communication. The researchers point out that people have been exposed to political propaganda, deliberate disinformation and rumors long before public messaging migrated to the digital realm. However, fakes have become the subject of close attention only recently—after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016 that are remembered for the active use of modern information technologies in election propaganda. As Victoria Vzyatysheva notes, this was also when the expression ‘fake news’ became very popular.
To date, a large and growing number of scientific papers testify to the negative consequences of online disinformation. These include a decrease in trust in the mainstream media, alienation and cynicism towards political candidates, as well as the creation of false memories of fabricated political events and a shift in the focus of people’s attention to unfamiliar, distracting topics.
By some accounts, the spread of false political information in the run-up to and after the 2016 U.S. election had become a mass phenomenon. For example, one study cited by the HSE researchers found that, on average, an American adult had read and remembered at least one fake news article during the month leading up to the election.
All this, according to the researchers, has spawned a wave of research on a specific type of false information called fake news. Most often, this information is defined as messages that do not correspond to reality, but resemble plausible news content and are created with the intent to mislead.
In scientific circles, there is an opinion that the rise of fake news is a consequence of the manifestation of a broader epistemological shift. It lies in the fact that a significant number of consumers of online information are moving away from the standards of evidence-based reasoning and the search for objective truth in favor of ‘alternative facts’ and simplification. This malady is often referred to as the state of ‘post-truth’.
At the heart of the transition to ‘post-truth’ are broad-based trends such as declining social capital, rising economic inequality, political polarisation, declining trust in science, and an increasingly fragmented media landscape.
Identifying factors that affect people’s ability to distinguish fake news from true news is one of the latest areas of research. However, there are almost no reviews summarising empirical data on the factors affecting people’s susceptibility to fake news. The work by HSE specialists was one of the first in this field.
The researchers conducted a scoping review of 26 scientific articles, pre-selected from the Scopus and Web of Science databases. A scoping review is a description and synthesis of the results of research conducted on a specific topic. ‘In our case, we identified the general question—which factors influence trust in fakes?’ explains Victoria Vzyatysheva. ‘And then we selected related keywords and criteria for the research (experimental or quasi-experimental studies) as well as the time period. Next, we searched the databases for works that matched these parameters and then summarised the results’, she says.
As part of the second study, presented at the 23rd International Yasin Conference at HSE in April, a survey was conducted among 1,946 media workers and ordinary people to compare their perceptions of false and trustworthy information. The final sample included 1,455 ordinary readers of media, 319 media employees and 172 former media employees.
Each respondent was shown 12 fake and true news stories on three controversial topics: LGBT, abortion, and the death penalty’, Victoria Vzyatysheva explains. ‘It was assumed that these questions, often provoking polar opinions in society, would help to more clearly identify the effect of attitudes towards the topic. All the news varied in its valency in relation to the topic (positive/negative) and was shown in the format of social network posts’.
Having assessed the trustworthiness of the news, the participants were told to express their attitude to the issues mentioned. They also completed a survey that included questions about their socio-demographic characteristics, media consumption, political preferences and, for media employees, professional experience.
The data was analysed using signal detection theory (SDT). The authors of the study note that SDT is often used in psychological experiments in which participants must distinguish between two types of stimuli. The theory helps separate response bias (the tendency to respond in a certain way) and sensitivity (accuracy in discriminating between stimuli). ‘In the study, using these parameters, we were able to most clearly separate the effect of the confirmation bias—the tendency to confirm one’s point of view—and the accuracy in determining news’, says Victoria Vzyatysheva.
The results of the analysis of scientific articles showed that there are three large groups of factors that contribute to people's trust in fake news. The first includes the characteristics of the message—for example, the logic and consistency of arguments, the number of likes, the source of the news, etc. The second group of factors is associated with the individual characteristics of those receiving the information—their cognitive styles of thinking, propensity to confirm their point of view, as well as their level of media and information literacy. And the third group of factors affecting how people perceive fakes is interventions aimed at combating false information. These can be, for example, warnings that prompt users to check the validity of the messages they see.
The results of the preliminary analysis in the second study showed a moderate difference in the accuracy of news recognition between media employees and ordinary users. ‘Media employees are, indeed, better at distinguishing fakes from true news, but, as we came to understand, this difference is due not to some specific sensitivity to disinformation, but to more advanced fact-checking skills’, says Victoria Vzyatysheva.
Participants were not specifically encouraged to cross-check the news, she explains. ‘But since this was an online experiment and we couldn't control how people completed it, we assumed that someone might Google the news during the test’, the researcher comments. ‘So we asked, “Which news did you double-check?” Initially, we did not have any hypotheses about this variable—we needed it to control for those who decided to "cheat" during the test. Without additional fact-checking, both media professionals and ordinary users showed very similar results in news recognition’. Vzyatysheva also points out that the fakes used in the experiment strongly resembled real news, so they were very difficult to recognise.
When media employees cross-checked information, they demonstrated much greater accuracy than ordinary users. ‘This tells us that media professionals do not have some kind of superpower to see a fake right off the bat and are subject to the same distortions as everyone else, but that they are able to verify information very effectively’, Victoria Vzyatysheva explains.
According to preliminary results of the study, a significant relationship was also found between the tendency to validate one’s point of view and trust in the news. ‘This effect is observed regardless of media experience for both true and fake news on all three topics’, the researchers concluded.
Despite the results of the study, people today are generally not too gullible about information—they can recognize false messages very well, treating them with a healthy dose of skepticism, the authors of the study say.
However, there are a number of factors that often contribute to the credibility of fake news. Scientific experiments in this area help show how consumers can become victims of false information, and also how to prevent it.
According to the authors, this is the first study of its kind involving representatives of the media industry. It demonstrates how the propensity to confirm one’s point of view affects the perception of information as false or trustworthy. People are at risk of being affected by this cognitive bias regardless of their media competence. And this suggests that even experienced media professionals who themselves participate in the production of content can be misled. But the fact that, when checking information, media employees are still more effective at recognizing fakes, at least draws attention to the measures that are important in the fight against disinformation—namely, raising the level of media literacy and training in basic fact-checking skills.