August 7, 2019

There’s no doubt that the world of fact-checking has experienced a boom over the last decade. But are we any closer to truly understanding the phenomenon of misinformation, or how to stop it?

There’s a plethora of fresh research that helps answer this question, as media scholars and researchers study and explore how different kinds of misinformation behave in different contexts.

Here’s a list of three recent findings that prove helpful for fact-checkers looking to gain some insight on the motivations behind the spread of mis/disinformation.

Misinformation isn’t just about facts, it’s about stories

Human beings are natural storytellers; judging from the dramatic scenes found in cave paintings in France that date 30,000 years back, it’s safe to assume that narratives have been an essential part of human life for thousands of years.

Stories can be so powerful, in fact, that Imke Henkel from the University of Lincoln argues that our tendency to choose riveting narrative over factual accuracy can make us more susceptible to false claims, or myths.

Henkel analyzed news coverage around seven “Euromyths”— popular exaggerated or made-up stories about the European Union, which the European Commission keeps an index of — and found that many of them play on the same repetitive nationalistic themes: “Ridicule and laughter, irreverence and defiance, British exceptionalism, and the capacity to unmask and stand up to nonsensical rules,” she wrote in a study published in Journalism Education in February of 2018.

“(They) create the persistent myth of the (mostly) laughing, irreverent Briton holding up British exceptionalism against a humorless authority. Laughter and defiance win as they unmask the absurdity behind the authority.”

British news consumers who are interested in believing and upholding this narrative about themselves will steer away from factual accuracy, Henkel argues, and it’s unlikely they’ll be interested in fact checks.

Thus, fact-checking is not enough. “Falsehood in news reporting is not limited to the untrue representation of facts,” Henkel warns. Fact-checkers and journalists need to pay more attention to how stories are being told, and how the narratives people want to believe help shape myths and hoaxes.

When fake headlines are repeated, people believe them more

One of the common criticisms of fact-checking practices has been that, by highlighting false information on peoples’ news feeds, fact-checkers actually increase that misinformation’s visibility and thus heighten its impact.

A recent study from Gordon Pennycook, Tyrone Cannon and David Rand of Yale University shows that it’s not that simple.

By analyzing survey results from over 500 participants, they found that when fake news headlines are repeated, people are more likely to believe them even if they don’t align with the viewer’s political leaning.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General in June of 2018, tested the headline “BLM Thug Protests President Trump with Selfie… Accidentally Shoots Himself In The Face” on both Clinton and Trump supporters, and found that in both groups, a single prior exposure to the headline increased accuracy judgments.

This may suggest that people don’t necessarily believe false headlines because they reinforce their political beliefs. They believe them because, as the scholars wrote, “when the truth is hard to come by, familiarity is an attractive stand-in.”

This is not to say that fact-checkers should stop fact-checking. However, the researchers also found that while fact-checking warning labels don’t necessarily decrease the likelihood of someone believing that headline, they did improve people’s wariness of the accuracy of all news.

“The warning appears to have increased general skepticism, which increased the overall sensitivity to fake news,” the scholars wrote. “The warning also successfully decreased people’s willingness to share fake news headlines on social media.”

Nonetheless, the researchers caution that no fact-check warning is nearly as powerful as repetition and familiarity, so “larger solutions are needed that prevent people from ever seeing fake news in the first place.”

They also noted that politicians who repeat the same false claims over and over could be somewhat successful in convincing people that their statements are true.

False rumors don’t just repeat themselves; they evolve and get stronger

Another group of scholars found that not only do false news headlines repeat themselves, but they evolve, adapt to the relevant political context, and resurface as “news.”

Jieun Shin, Lian Jian, Kevin Driscoll and François Bar looked at the temporal pattern, mutation and sources of 17 popular political rumors that circulated on Twitter over 13 months during the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

They found that while false rumors are often repeated periodically, true rumors enjoy a single spike of sharing and don’t make comebacks.

“This pattern may mean that rumor spreaders strategically bring back false rumors in hopes of influencing others,” the researchers wrote. “In particular, we observed many of these rumors resurge nearing the Election Day and yet they stopped spreading abruptly after the Election Day.”

“These findings suggest that the political misinformation phenomenon could be a reflection of campaign tactics employed by media professionals and individual activists… who seek political power through the manipulation of information.”

Second, the study, published in Computers in Human Behavior in June of 2018, found that most true rumors originate from mainstream news outlets, while most false rumors emerge from relatively obscure websites.

These rumors tended to pick up steam over time, becoming more exaggerated and aggressive, adding more adjectives and partisan hashtags. And their comebacks were driven by various “nontraditional websites” that would pick up the old claim and re-package it as news, leading the scholars to speculate that “there is a group of rumor entrepreneurs who not only produce false claims but also give life back to old debunked rumors.”

Finally, the researchers suggest that spreading false and often controversial rumors is a tactic used to reinforce partisan identities, strengthen the bonds within partisan networks and create group solidarity.

They recommend that, rather than always moving on to new claims, fact-checking organizations should pay attention to resurfaced hoaxes, and repeatedly share their debunks every time a claim goes viral.

The study also pointed out that people are more resistant to fake news if they are warned in advance that they will be exposed to false claims. If fact-checkers are wary of what claims tend to get repeated, and when they are likely to reappear, they may be able to more effectively prepare news consumers from misinformation campaigns.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News