AUSTIN (KXAN) — Whether we’re talking about allegations flung by politicians that certain reports are “fake news” or actual sites and social media accounts that amplify inaccurate news, “fake news” has become a regular part of our public vocabulary in 2019.
But do we actually know how to identify fake news if it’s right in front of us?
According to new findings from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, we aren’t as good at detecting fake news on Facebook as we think we are.
The study — from researchers at UT Austin, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Indiana University — was published on November 5 in the Management Information Systems Quarterly. The faculty leading the study titled their findings “Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense at All.”
Forty of the headlines were evenly divided between true and false headlines. The researchers said they included 10 “clearly true” headlines as controls.
These researchers got their results by studying the brain activity of 80 different social media-literate college students. While wearing special headsets, these students were asked to read 50 political news headlines as they would appear in a Facebook feed. The students were asked to assess how credible those headlines were.
These students were only able to correctly determine the accuracy of 44% of the headlines, “overwhelmingly selecting headlines that aligned with their own political beliefs as true.”
In 2016, Facebook began flagging some news articles to acknowledge when an article was “disputed by third-party fact-checkers.” To account for this, the researchers randomly assigned these fake news flags to the 40 non-control headlines.
What the researchers found was that when an article that aligned with students’ political beliefs was flagged as fake, students spent more time and showed more brain activity on assessing that headline. Despite that, even the fake news flags did not change how students responded to the headlines.
“They overwhelmingly said that headlines conforming with their preexisting beliefs were true, regardless of whether they were flagged as potentially fake,” a release from the university explained.
Before the study, students were asked questions about their own political beliefs and given electroencephalography headsets to track their brain activity.
The researchers also said they observed the same effects regardless of what political party the students were.
“People’s self-reported identity as Democrat or Republican didn’t influence their ability to detect fake news,” said lead author Patricia Moravec, assistant professor of information, risk and operations management at UT. “And it didn’t determine how skeptical they were about what’s news and what’s not.”
A release from the university sums up their findings in one sentence: “You can’t trust yourself to discern what’s true and what’s not when you’re on Facebook.”
The release went on to say that the experiment shows that people on social media “are highly subject to confirmation bias” — the way people tend to be drawn to information that aligns with what they already believe.
“We all believe that we are better than the average person at detecting fake news, but that’s simply not possible,” said Moravec. “The environment of social media and our own biases make us all much worse than we think.”
“Just the strength of these results and the fact that this implies that people really didn’t think about headlines that didn’t align with their beliefs, that’s very telling for the way that we consume information on social media, that we just ignore information that doesn’t fit with our world view,” Moravec said.
In Moravec’s view, social media companies like Facebook have a responsibility to make changes and account for the difficulties we face in distinguishing which news is fake.
“Mark Zuckerberg has been loath to take responsibility for this, but he should,” she said.
Facebook has taken steps to remove fake news accounts but has also received criticism for allowing political ads and for refusing to fact-check political ads.
So how do we avoid this fake news pitfall?
Moravec said the first step is not using social media as a news source, but rather, consuming news from a variety of news sites, “so you get a variety of biases, because that’s really going to help us be less susceptible to fake news overtime.”
“When you see news on social media — anything that looks like news — try to look at the source first, before you look at the headline, try to see where it’s coming from,” Moravec said. “If it’s a reputable news source, great. You can continue and actually read the headline. But if it’s not a reputable news source, try not to read any more about it.”
If there’s a topic that’s even remotely important to you, to politics, or to your community, Moravec recommends searching the headline to see what other news sites are saying about it.
“Because if you can look at these different perspectives and actually verify if everyone is saying the same thing or not, that is going to help you in knowing if what you’re actually consuming is true or not,” she said.