Thursday, November 07, 2019

Truth at risk: Study finds people have hard time identifying 'fake news' on social media, even with Facebook flags

The proliferation of partisan websites masquerading as local news is a troubling trend, and one that may threaten the credibility of real local journalists. It's all the more concerning because even those familiar with social media—both Democrats and Republicans—seem to have a hard time identifying fake news stories because of confirmation bias, the desire to confirm what you already believe.

So says a recent study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Indiana University, Andrew Sheeler reports for The Sacramento Bee.

The researchers put 83 undergraduates (all familiar with social media) on wireless headsets and had them read political news headlines, some fake, as if they were on Facebook. "Despite being social-media savvy, the participants successfully identified fewer than half, 44 percent, of the fake news stories," Sheeler reports. The students overwhelmingly believed to be true headlines that aligned with their personal political beliefs.

"The study found that fact checking made no difference in the findings," Sheeler reports. "Much as Facebook now uses fact-checking flags to highlight stories that are false or misleading, researchers attached similar flags to the fake news headlines which participants read." Though the flag made participants study headlines more carefully, it didn't change their initial response to a headline. The students' political affiliations didn't influence their ability to detect fake news, and neither did any pre-existing skepticism about the news, the researchers wrote.

"This study comes as the 2020 election heats up, with the first elections of the 2020 primary just months away, and the general election less than a year off. It also comes as social media giant Facebook refuses to remove false or misleading political ads from its service," Sheeler reports. "The report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller III found that misleading and incendiary ads were a key part of Russia’s strategy to manipulate the 2016 presidential election."

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