Technology

Think you can spot a fake news story? A new study says you’re probably wrong

Here’s a thing Democrats and Republicans have in common: Neither is very good at spotting fake news in their social media feeds.

That’s the finding of a new study published in “Management Information Systems Quarterly” by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Indiana University.

As part of the study, 80 “social media-proficient” undergraduate students were hooked up to a wireless headset and read political news headlines, some of which were fake, as if they appeared on Facebook.

Despite being social media savvy, the participants successfully identified fewer than half, 44 percent, of the fake news stories, “overwhelmingly selecting headlines that aligned with their own political beliefs as true,” according to a statement from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin.

“We all believe that we are better than the average person at detecting fake news, but that’s simply not possible,” lead author Patricia Moravec said in prepared remarks. “The environment of social media and our own biases make us all much worse than we think.”

The study found that fact checking made no difference in the findings.

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.

“They (the participants) overwhelmingly said that headlines conforming with their preexisting beliefs were true, regardless of whether they were flagged as potentially fake,” according to the statement. “The flag did not change their initial response to the headline, even if it did make them pause a moment longer and study it a bit more carefully.”

Republicans and Democrats alike fell for the fake news headlines, researchers said.

“People’s self-reported identity as Democrat or Republican didn’t influence their ability to detect fake news. And it didn’t determine how skeptical they were about what’s news and what’s not,” Moravec said in prepared remarks.

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.

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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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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