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Red-flagging misinformation could slow fake news spread

Image credit: Bigtunaonline | Dreamstime

Researchers have found that credibility indicators flagging spurious headlines can reduce the sharing of fake news on social media, although effectiveness varies with demographics and political affiliation.

Experts are concerned that the dissemination of fake news on social media could have dire implications for the 2020 US presidential election. For instance, previous research from Oxford Internet Institute (OII) shows that public engagement with spurious news is greater than with legitimate news from mainstream sources, making social media a powerful platform for propaganda.

But a new study on the spread of disinformation, conducted by researchers at New York University (NYU) Tandon School of Engineering, reveals that pairing headlines with credibility alerts from fact-checkers, the public, news media, and AI, can reduce a readers’ intention to share such posts.

The study goes a step further, examining the effectiveness of a specific set of inaccuracy notifications designed to alert readers to news headlines that are inaccurate or untrue.

The research involved an online study of around 1,500 individuals to measure the effectiveness among different groups of four so-called “credibility indicators” displayed beneath headlines. These included:

  • Fact Checkers: “Multiple fact-checking journalists dispute the credibility of this news”
  • News Media: “Major news outlets dispute the credibility of this news”
  • Public: “A majority of Americans disputes the credibility of this news”
  • AI: “Computer algorithms using AI dispute the credibility of this news”

“We wanted to discover whether social media users were less apt to share fake news when it was accompanied by one of these indicators and whether different types of credibility indicators exhibit different levels of influence on people’s sharing intent,” Professor Nasir Memon, who co-led the study, said. “But we also wanted to measure the extent to which demographic and contextual factors like age, gender, and political affiliation impact the effectiveness of these indicators.”

In the study, the participants saw a sequence of 12 true, false, or satirical news headlines. Only the false or satirical headlines included a credibility indicator below the headline in red font. For all of these headlines, respondents were asked if they would share the corresponding article with friends on social media, and why.

“Upon initial inspection, we found that political ideology and affiliation were highly correlated to responses and that the strength of individuals’ political alignments made no difference, whether Republican or Democrat,” Memon explained. “The indicators impacted everyone regardless of political orientation, but the impact on Democrats was much larger compared to the other two groups.”

The team found that the most effective of the credibility indicators was fact-checkers. Study respondents intended to share 43 per cent fewer non-true headlines with this indicator versus 25 per cent, 22 per cent, and 22 per cent for the news media, public, and AI indicators, respectively.

The researchers also found a strong correlation between political affiliation and the propensity of each of the credibility indicators to influence intention to share. The study found that while Democrats intended to share significantly fewer non-true headlines with the addition of all all indicators (varying from 36 per cent less for news media to 61 per cent less for fact checkers), the AI credibility indicator encouraged Republicans to share non-true news.

Politics affect influence of credibility indicators

The graph shows that Republicans are less likely to be influenced by credibility indicators and are more inclined to share fake news on social media.

Image credit: NYU Tandon

Sameer Patil, who led the study with Memon, added that while fact-checkers are the most effective kind of indicator - regardless of political affiliation and gender - fact-checking is very labour-intensive. He said that he was surprised by results indicating that Republicans were more inclined to share news that was flagged as not credible using the AI indicator.

“We were not expecting that, although conservatives may tend to trust more traditional means of flagging the veracity of news,” he said. He added that the team will next examine how to make the most effective credibility indicator – fact-checkers – efficient enough to handle the scale of fake news faced today, such as by applying fact checking to the most pressing content.

The study also found that men intended to share non-true headlines one and half times more than women, with the differences largest for the Public and News Media indicators.

Gender affect influence of credibility indicators

Men are less likely to be influenced by credibility indicators, more inclined to share fake news on social media. But indicators, especially those from fact-checkers, reduce intention to share fake news across the board.

Image credit: NYU Tandon

According to the team, socialising was the main reason respondents gave for intending to share a headline, and the most-reported reason for intending to share fake stories was for comical effect.

Meanwhile, YouTube said it will be adding informational sidebars from third-party fact-checkers in an effort help crack down on misinformation about Covid-19 and other sensitive topics.

These sidebars or “panels” will appear next to YouTube video searches on topics that have been vetted by fact-checkers and will show relevant articles on the topic searched by a user. Furthermore, YouTube’s panels will employ Google’s machine-learning algorithms to understand language entered into posts.

“When users are searching on YouTube round a specific claim, we want to give an opportunity for those fact checks to show up right then and there, when our users are looking for information – especially around fast-moving quickly changing topics like Covid-19,” said Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer.

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