Fake News and It's Misinformation Effect

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Misinformation on the Internet

Nowadays it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. People are no longer getting news from NBC, CNN, and the like but are often relying on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to find out what's going on in the world. Worse is the fact that deception on social media is resulting in less faith in legitimate news sources, too.

This article will discuss the importance of understanding the risks involved with receiving news from unreliable sources and how it can negatively impact our trust, and in turn, our knowledge of what is going on in the world. Kids and more naïve audiences, especially, need to understand how misinformation gets started, how it persists, and how we can be less negatively impacted by it.

What is the Misinformation Effect?

The misinformation effect is the tendency for post-event information to be latched onto a memory after the original event took place. Researchers state that introducing even subtle information after an event occurs can have a profound impact on how people remember it, and in turn, distort their understanding.

The Misinformation Effect was first studied in the 1970s by psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus. Her research proved that memories are much easier to influence than previously believed.

In one experiment, she and her research team showed participants pictures of a car accident. Shortly after, participants read inaccurate information about it. The experiment demonstrated that participants assimilated this false information with the truth, making mistakes when recalling what happened when asked.

Even the phrasing of a question can distort memories. In another experiment, researchers showed people a video of a minor car accident then later asked them to report on it. They found that even asking participants questions suggestively, like "about how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each- other" affected their memory of how serious the accident was.

A better understanding of this phenomenon and related ones such as the “tainted truth effect” can assist policymakers and the public with developing better solutions to these issues.

What is the “Tainted Truth Effect?”

The tainted truth effect is very like the misinformation effect. This psychological phenomenon refers to the way warnings of misinformation can make people less trusting of legitimate news sources. This is regardless of whether the warnings are well-intentioned, like fact-checking, or if they are ill-intentioned.

Still, some warnings are useful. The most effective fact-checkers both identify and debunk fake news stories, pointing out lies or misstatements, while also informing the public about the context of the statements and applicable details pertaining to the subject.

One study required participants to watch a C-SPAN video on a contemporary issue. Shortly after, the participants were exposed to a variety of different content including both accurate information regarding what they had seen, misinformation, and misinformation warnings. The research team found, to no one's surprise, that reliable information could boost the participants' recollection of the events, whereas misinformation was damaging to their memory.

What is the Reason for Misinformation?

There are a wide variety of incentives for spreading false information. Nations often share fake news as part of disinformation campaigns to further their political agendas. Whereas businesses and profiteers will generate fake material and distribute it for advertising revenue. Additionally, the design of online social media platforms not only enables the widespread distribution of fake news but often encourages it. This results in significant amounts of deceptive material making its way across the world's media landscape.

What Research Has Been Conducted on Fake News?

Research, to date, has been sparse. However, research on propaganda goes back decades. Modern fake news is typically spread through social networks as "news," which makes it different from state propaganda.

What makes modern fake news more dangerous is the fact that modern technologies can make the issue worse due to bots saturating social networks. They will often increase fake-news messages. One study estimates that 9 to 15 percent of Twitter users are bots. Research suggests that they play a key role in spreading fake news.

What are the Consequences of Misinformation?

Fake news has a variety of costs, aside from just a misinformed population. For example, mainstream media and fact-checking sites must dedicate time to debunking a viral lie. Furthermore, scholars suspect that conflicting reports between fake news outlets and legitimate outlets lead to skepticism and disengagement of all media.

The proliferation of fake news has resulted in trust in legitimate news sources being at an all-time low. Only 32 percent of Americans report having "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the media to report the news "fully, fairly, and accurately." This is the lowest ever documented in history.

Another concern is that the combination of fake news and social networks, as they currently function, results in elevated levels of extremism. Since social networks are meant to hold users' attention, they often share material that users might like, based on what they have already watched and shown interest in. For example, YouTube suggestions are based on content that has already been viewed, which can quickly lead to related, increasingly extreme content.

From a political standpoint, these dynamics raise clear risks to democracy. Elections worldwide have been negatively impacted by disinformation campaigns despite voters being expected to be well informed.

How Can This Misinformation Issue Be Mitigated?

Quick educational interventions have proved to be useful. Some studies show that the effects of misinformation can be reduced by quizzing participants on what they've learned prior to their exposure to fake news and misinformation. If participants recall information immediately after acquiring it, they are more likely to retain it and report it accurately, even when subjected to misinformation.

Other studies suggest that one of the fundamental issues is the passivity of news consumers, especially on the Internet. If the readers are active and engaged, they are more likely to grasp the material they have been exposed to. One solution that can be tested is adding quick tests into news articles and videos, though realistically these will be ignored. A more effective option might be to teach advanced critical thinking and media literacy skills. This can be made into a prioritized commitment across the population, especially to those that are younger and more prone to naivety.

Lastly, media organizations, tech companies and governments who are responsible for sharing information and misinformation with the public can commit to not contributing to this pervading issue.

Social media platforms, like Facebook, must instill clear and transparent policies about what types of information can appear. They will also need to have stricter, clearer guidelines of what must be removed. Unfortunately, blanket warnings have not proven to be effective, but have instead resulted in reduced trust in all media.

Governments can strive to combat misinformation while not crossing the boundaries of free speech principles. News sources will need to commit to clear, accurate information that combats false information while also avoiding causing unjustified panic from the public. Internet users can investigate the reliability and bias of the news they're receiving by referencing sites like Ad Fontes Media and checking out their Media Bias Chart.

Fighting misinformation on all levels – in school, online, and within public institutions should result in a population that is less susceptible to deception, as well as more confident and secure in their knowledge and ability to develop rational opinions and informed decisions.

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