A team of scholars has urged more “media literacy” and fact-checking of online searches
Using online search engines to look up more information about news stories can lead to believing “low-quality sources,” according to a new study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
The study cites data from five experiments, conducted between 2019 and 2021, that purports to show “consistent evidence that online search to evaluate the truthfulness of false news articles actually increases the probability of believing them.”
Doing more research has long been proposed by media literacy and digital literacy programs, but the result shows this might be the wrong approach, Joshua Tucker, one of the six authors of the study, told Vice’s Motherboard on Thursday.
“The question here was what happens when people encounter an article online, they’re not sure if it’s true or false, and so they go look for more information about it using a search engine,” Tucker said.
One of the experiments involving some 3,000 Americans showed that people who had been “nudged” to research online were 19% more likely to believe a “false or misleading article” over those from “reputable sources.”
“It was incredible to us how remarkably consistent this effect was across multiple different studies that we ran,” Tucker told Motherboard. “This isn’t just ‘Oh we ran one study’. We’re very, very confident this is happening.”
According to the study, online searches lead people into “data voids,” defined as informational spaces offering corroborating evidence from “low-quality sources.”
The authors said their findings “highlight the need for media literacy programmes,” more funding for fact-checkers, and for search engines to “invest in solutions” to the highlighted problems.
The study was signed by Kevin Aslett of the University of Central Florida, Nathaniel Persily of the Stanford University Law School, and four researchers from the Center for Social Media and Politics, New York University (NYU): Zeve Sanderson, William Godel, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker. Nagler and Tucker are also employed at the Wilf Family Department of Politics at NYU.
The Center for Social Media and Politics is best known for the January 2023 study that found “no evidence of a meaningful relationship between the exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior” in the 2016 US presidential election – long after the claim of ‘Russian meddling’ was used to usher sweeping censorship in the American social media ecosystem.
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