Studies test ways to slow the spread of fake news

Learning how to tell truth from fabrications can slow the spread of bogus claims


The difference between fact and fiction isn’t always obvious in online news and information. Careful fact-checking can help you find out what’s real and what’s not.

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On June 26, an article at a website that writes about politics wrongly claimed three migrants were being held at the United States’ southern border with “an unknown disease.” The only quotes about the claim came from an unnamed “medical professional.” Daniel Funke decided to dig deeper. Government border officials had no record of the supposed disease outbreak, this PolitiFact fact-checker found. Nor did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.

With no evidence to back up the claim, PolitiFact rated this story false. By then, however, other websites had repeated the bogus charge. Many people also shared it on social media.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has used this photo in tweets and publications. Another website used the photo in a misleading way to make unfounded claims about immigrants. PolitiFact rated that story “False.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

It was a lie. And spreading it would likely fuel fear of refugees who hope to escape violence in their home countries.

New research sheds light on who shares made-up — or “fake” — news. Another study shows how hard it can be to spot made-up news. Additional projects explore how we can all be better fact-checkers.

In short, do your own online search before sharing something, especially if it makes an astounding claim, Funke says. “Look for facts reported by credible news outlets that either back up or refute the central claims in the story at hand.”

Credible news outlets generally have a reputation for truthful and accurate reporting. They identify specific sources of their information. And they follow a code of ethics that calls for honesty, corrections of errors and more. Websites that merely repeat the same claim as another website’s article — sometimes word-for-word — don’t count. “And,” Funke cautions, “when in doubt, always think before you share.”

High stakes

“The stakes of misinformation and fake news are so high,” says Laeeq Khan. He heads the Social Media Analytics Lab at Ohio University in Athens. For instance, he notes, sharing something that’s not true can cost people their lives. Last year, people in India used a messaging app, WhatsApp, to spread fake stories about a kidnapping ring. The lies fueled anti-Muslim mobs. Violent attacks followed in which people died.

Fake-news stories hurt people in other ways, too. False reports lead some parents to refuse vaccines for their children. Yet without vaccines, children can get deadly diseases. False stories about birth control can result in unplanned pregnancies or illness. Made-up stories about ethnic groups can lead to more discrimination.

Fake news can even hurt people who aren’t its target. “About seven in 10 Americans were telling us that [fake news] has a big impact on the confidence in our government institutions,” says Jeffrey Gottfried. He’s a journalism and media-research expert at Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Researchers there asked a sample of people in the United States about the effects of made-up news. The group’s report came out on June 5, 2019.

Just a click is all it takes to share information on social media sites. About half the people in a recent survey said they had shared false information online, a Pew Research Center report says.
Ksenia Omelchenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

One survey question asked what types of changes people made in response to the problem of made-up news. Roughly four in 10 of those people said they had cut back on how much news they got. And, the survey found, the less closely that people follow political matters — such as elections, lawmaking or policy debates — the more likely they were to cut back on news. That can be dangerous. The less people know about current events, the less likely they’ll be able to make informed choices about public matters.

Spotting and spreading false news

Nearly eight in 10 people in the Pew survey said they have checked the facts of news stories. Yet it seems they didn’t do that all of the time. About half of them still wound up sharing some made-up news. “What it suggests is that the American public is playing a large role in this dissemination of made-up news and information,” Gottfried says. “They’re part of the process.”

Most of the surveyed people who shared false claims said they didn’t realize it at the time. Basically, they fell for a hoax. But one in every 10 people in the Pew survey said they had they shared a story they had known was false. About half wanted to point out the falsehood. The rest thought something about the story was entertaining. Or they liked what it said. Some just wanted to start a “discussion.”

But people who do that don’t help, says journalist Damaso Reyes. “They’re muddying the water,” he argues. Reyes works for the News Literacy Project in New York City.  Sharing a bogus story makes it harder for people to tell what’s real. And when people find out a story is false, they may not trust other information from a person who spread it. “We want to live in a fact-based world,” he says.

Different factors affect who’s more likely to share fake news. Khan at Ohio University and a colleague surveyed almost 400 people in Indonesia. That southeast Asian country ranks among the top five for users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp. Fake news also has been a problem during its political campaigns.

Less-educated people were more likely to think they were good at spotting false claims on their own, the team learned. People with more education and better internet skills were less likely to share things without checking them out first. And knowing how to find out if a story is true was the most important skill. “The earlier you start, the better,” Khan says.

“Nobody should feel bad that they aren’t experts in evaluating information. We found really smart adults who struggled,” says Sarah McGrew. She and Sam Wineburg are education researchers at Stanford University in California. In one study, the two observed 25 college students, 10 historians with doctorate degrees and 10 professional fact-checkers. All 45 had been asked to evaluate information from certain websites. Some sites had been created by reputable organizations. Others were sites for extremist groups or firms that were paid to promote a particular view.

Overall, the college students did worst. For example, 60 percent of them thought information about bullying from an anti-gay group was more reliable than that from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In fact, AAP is the more reliable source.

The historians did little better. One went with the anti-gay website. Four said it and the AAP website were equally reliable, when that wasn’t the case.

In contrast, all the fact-checkers figured out that the AAP site was reliable, and not the anti-gay website. They also took less time to decide on their answers. Wineburg and McGrew published their working paper online in 2017.

Building skills

A warning (lower right) shows that fact-checkers dispute this hoax claim in a sample story used in a study about fake news.
G. Pennycook and D. Rand/SSRN

Some websites try to help readers by rating the overall quality of different news publications. Some social-media sites also try to flag posts that might be false. But those systems aren’t perfect. So we all need to make our own judgments, Khan and Reyes say.

First, ask where the information you’re reading comes from, McGrew says. The fact-checkers in her team’s study looked at the website where a story appeared and who wrote it. They opened a new tab and checked out the organization and its sponsors. So, for example, the anti-gay group’s own website claims it is an organization of healthcare professionals “dedicated to the health and well-being of children.” Yet a quick Google search showed the Southern Poverty Law Center has found it’s a hate group.

Then the fact-checkers went back to read the website’s content. All publications and authors have a point of view, McGrew notes. “You need to recognize that perspective and keep it in mind as you’re reading.”

Make sure, too, that you know if something is a news story, an opinion piece, an ad or something else, Reyes says. Read through the whole article to decide. An opinion piece basically argues for or against some policy position. It might cite some facts to support its position. But some pieces then try to present their opinions as if they were facts, when they’re not.

And beware of sneaky tactics. Some shady websites try to masquerade as legitimate news sources. Some stories use emotional tricks to make bogus claims appear believable. For example, the false story about immigrants at the border aimed to spark fear with its lie. And some people are less likely to stop and question claims if they feel afraid.

Sander van der Linden is a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Jon Roozenbeek is a graduate student there. Their team recently created an online game called Bad News. It challenges players to use different tricks that are common in fake news. Players earn badges for pretending they are other people or disguising themselves as legitimate websites. In addition to such impersonation, they also can get those badges for appealing to emotions, spouting conspiracy claims and other tactics.

This screenshot comes from the online game Bad News. Players make believe they’re running a “real news site.” Each player’s real goal is to promote fake news. The game’s creators hope players will be better able to spot fake news sites’ tricks.

Data collected from adult players suggest that playing the game helps people get better at spotting such tricks when others use them, such as in fake tweets. After the game, players had to judge the reliability of different tweets. The scale went from 1 to 7. Lower scores marked less reliable information. The average rating for tweets that used impersonation went down seven-tenths of a point. Average reliability ratings for conspiracy claims fell by half a point. Ratings also fell for tweets that tried to discredit experts or blame others.

Those shifts can be “quite meaningful when added up across the population,” says van der Linden. “Think about it this way: The United Kingdom’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union came down to just a 4 percent difference in votes” (with 52 percent voting to leave and 48 percent voting to remain). “If any of the voters were misled by fake news and if that could have been prevented, that matters!”

“What we hoped to achieve [with our game] is making people think before they believe something or share it with others,” Roozenbeek says. His team published its results in Palgrave Communications on June 25, 2019.

Expanding your search

Some websites might look like their information comes from a trusted group of experts. They might quote people with advanced degrees (such as a PhD or M.D.). And groups might say they have a broad educational or other helpful purpose. Those features tripped up some college students and professors in Wineburg and McGrew’s study at Stanford. On its own, the anti-gay group’s website looked fine. But the professional fact-checkers in the Stanford study looked beyond the website itself. So should you.

“What do other sources say?” McGrew asks. “One strength of the internet is that there are always other sources to turn to. A claim is likely more believable if you can verify it across multiple reliable sources.” For instance, you might double-check claims about health by going to websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Academy of Medicine, federal health agencies, universities and well-known hospitals.

Professional fact-checkers also don’t just click on the first hits that come up in their online searches. They have “click restraint.”  They scroll through pages of results and scan the short sentences shown for each hit. That helps them judge which to read first, McGrew says.

She, Wineburg and others tested those techniques in a semester-long college class on critical thinking. Critical thinking combines fact finding, reasoning and a questioning attitude to form independent judgments, instead of just accepting arguments from others at face value. Teachers taught those topics to all the students in the study. Half the students also got two 75-minute lessons on fact-checking. They learned how to check online claims of “facts” and how to judge the reliability of the sources of those claims. 

Before and after taking the Stanford course, all groups took a test in which they rated the factual reliability of online material. After the course, average scores for students who had the fact-checking classes went up about two out of ten points. Scores for students who didn’t have the fact-checking lessons barely changed. Still, all of the classes showed lots of room to improve. The study appeared April 16, 2019, in the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Faktabaari, based in Finland, was nominated for an award for its fact-checking of claims made by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Faktabaari rated three of her claims true. A fourth needed clarification, because it involved judgments about policy actions.

Also resist the urge to make things too simple. Mikko Salo founded a fact-checking group Faktabaari (Fact Bar), based in Helsinki, Finland. Its ratings use green, red and yellow symbols, like a traffic light. Green represents a true claim supported by facts. Red denotes a claim that is clearly false. Yellow is for “50/50.”

“Yellow” claims are the trickiest, Salo says. They contain some facts, but the claim is not completely accurate. “Very few things are as simple” as yes or no, he says. “Yellow provokes the debate.” As people talk about additional facts, they can understand issues better. In fact-checking, “What I appreciate especially,” Salo says, “is it’s an honest try to reach the truth methodically.”

In March 2019, for example, the group fact-checked claims from a speech by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Three of four science-related claims got the green light. The fourth was in that yellow zone. Thunberg had said the European Union needed to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 80 percent by 2030. Comments from two scientists showed that claim was a matter of interpretation. One expert thought emission cuts should be even more than 80 percent in order to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Another questioned whether data showed the 80-percent target was fair. Overall, the Faktabaari team concluded, “Greta Thunberg has done her science homework.”

As that example points out, fact-checking is important even when it finds that claims are true or mostly true. It also shows the difference between factual statements and policy positions. Policy positions state what someone concludes about a situation. Policy positions also express what someone thinks government or society should do about an issue. Those positions reflect opinions, social values and personal judgments. As such, they can’t be fact-checked, Salo says. But the underlying facts do matter, he adds —and those can be fact-checked.

Make it a habit

Fact-checking can go quickly once you make a habit of it.
damircudic/E+/Getty Images

“You can apply fact-checking in whatever you are reading,” Salo says. He thinks of it as “a simplified approach to scientific thinking.” In both cases, you want to use logic and rely on sound data or research. You want to arrive at the truth.

“I think of it almost as a detective search,” says Reyes at the News Literacy Project. “I’m trying to see what’s real and what’s not. I know there are people out there who are out to fool me. I’m trying not to get fooled.”

The more you do fact-checking, the better you’ll get. Remember: The professional fact-checkers in McGrew and Wineburg’s 2017 study did their work more quickly than the college students or professors.

And if you don’t have time to fact-check something right away, they say, then certainly don’t share it online.

“This is our responsibility,” Khan says. “We need to make that effort and have that attitude: Before sharing something, we verify it.”

“The truth should be central to the way we want to see the world,” Reyes adds. “It should be central to the world in which we want to make decisions and take action.”

Kathiann Kowalski reports on all sorts of cutting-edge science. Previously, she practiced law with a large firm. Kathi enjoys hiking, sewing and reading. She also enjoys travel, especially family adventures and beach trips.

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