October 25, 2018

The limits of media literacy studies

The first step in the fact-checking process is to determine whether something is a fact that warrants checking or an opinion that can’t be. This is literally the first module of our hands-on fact-checking mini-course.

So it was fascinating to see that the Pew Research Center published a study on exactly this topic: How good are Americans at making the distinction between fact and opinion? Their top line result: Not much.

The questions asked in the survey were relatively straightforward (see the related quiz), but only about a quarter of respondents accurately spotted all five factual statements and about a third did the same for the five opinion statements. (Not to brag or anything but both of us got top marks.)

Even this might underestimate how poorly the public can distinguish between fact and opinion outside the pristine parameters of a research experiment (i.e. on the actual internet).

“It's like asking people on a written test to distinguish between the hand movements of the crawl versus the side stroke, and from the answers they circle, infer that they'll be able to do it when you toss them into the water,” said Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group and Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, in an email to Alexios.

With due caveats about the real-life applicability of the study, one thing that caught Pew’s (and our) attention is that Americans age 18-49 scored significantly better than those 50 and older. That echoes other findings in this space, such as Briony Swire-Thomson’s study on fact check retention being worse with people older than 65.

At the same time, there are ample reasons to be concerned about young people’s media literacy. A study published earlier this month by the nonprofit Project Information Literacy found that almost half of nearly 6,000 American college students surveyed said they lacked confidence in discerning real from fake news on social media.

And Wineburg still doubts whether or not the Pew study means much in real life.

“I don't believe the study tells us a whit about what people do online,” Wineburg said.


This is new

  • Facebook is now downranking headlines that are false even if the whole story isn’t.
  • The British government has outlawed the use of the term “fake news” in official documents.
  • WikiTribune has laid off all its journalists.

This is how we do it

  • Poynter has hired a new editor and program manager for MediaWise.
  • British fact-checking charity Full Fact is now keeping tabs on the top research about fact-checking.
  • Dulce Ramos has been an invaluable asset for the IFCN. As she moves on, we are looking for a new Program Manager. Apply fast.
Brazil WhatsApp
A man checks his mobile phone as he descends stairs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

This is bad

  • In a meeting with Brazilian electoral authorities, WhatsApp claimed it was partnering with fact-checkers Aos Fatos — except it isn’t. WhatsApp later clarified and apologized.
  • Speaking of WhatsApp, The New York Times misrepresented a research finding about its misinformation challenge. It remains uncorrected.
  • Mainstream media outlets shared fake celebrity gossip in an effort to get people to register to vote. Sigh.

This is fun

  • Don’t hate on that Business Insider piece on the HSBC overachiever, verify its photos.
  • Learn about what MediaWise calls a “zombie claim.”
  • Several media outlets visited Facebook’s “war room” where employees are monitoring misinformation and interference in elections in the United States and Brazil. Gizmodo had some choice words about that.

A closer look

  • The New York Times editorial pages went on a bit of a misinformation spree. They published columns about the platforms’ responsibility to address misinformation, teaching Silicon Valley how to be ethical and how artificial intelligence won’t stop fake news.
  • Smart take from Aos Fatos’ Tai Nalon on the challenge with fighting WhatsApp misinformation in a country where the app is bundled into data plans: “It’s unequal. You can access misinformation for free but not fact-checking.”
  • The Wall Street Journal wrote about the ongoing scalability challenge of Facebook’s fact-checking project.

If you read one more thing

India’s problematic solution to misinformation on WhatsApp: turn off the internet.

10 quick fact-checking links

  1. Full Fact is hiring a senior philanthropy officer.
  2. Thanks, YouTube.
  3. Donald Trump is confused about how Facebook’s anti-misinformation efforts work. So we created a simple infographic for him.
  4. BuzzFeed News debunked misinformation about the migrant caravan en route to the U.S. — some of which was shared by the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
  5. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute stressed the importance of understanding how misinformation reaches people in his MisinfoCon slides.
  6. Another person was arrested in Egypt under the country’s “fake news” law.
  7. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo wrote about how misinformation on WhatsApp could be more of a human nature problem than a platform problem.
  8. Twitter has banned more accounts linked to Alex Jones and InfoWars.
  9. Facebook is now publishing a blog series on how it identifies misinformation.
  10. A Washington Post columnist wrote about why he fell for a fake viral video on Facebook.

Until next week,

Daniel and Alexios

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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