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Fact-checking shown to be highly effective in four-country study

Image credit: Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Fact-checking services are an effective tool at combatting misinformation on the internet, according to a new study conducted in four countries.

A team at George Washington University looked at the impact of fact-checking in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa and the UK, and found little variation in their positive effects.

They also found no evidence of a “backfire” effect of fact-checking, said co-author of the study Thomas Wood.

“When we started doing misinformation work about five years ago, it was the consensus that correcting misinformation wasn’t just ineffective, but that it was aggravating the problem and making people more entrenched in their false beliefs,” he explained.

“We found no evidence of that in these four countries.  What we did find was that fact-checking can be a very effective tool against misinformation.”

The researchers worked with fact-checking organisations in the four countries that are part of the International Fact-Checking Network, a body that promotes nonpartisan and transparent fact-checking.

They evaluated five fact-checks that were unique to each country and two – regarding Covid-19 and climate change – that were tested in all four countries.

The fact-checks in each country, done in September and October 2020, covered a broad range of misinformation, including local politics, crime and the economy.

Some of the 2,000 participants in each country received only the misinformation, while others received the misinformation followed by the actual corrections used by local fact-checking organisations in response to misinformation.

They then rated how much they believed the false statement on a scale of 1-5.

In each country, members of a control group did not receive any misinformation or corrective statements, but simply rated how much they believed the statements.

When compared to misinformation, every fact-check produced more accurate beliefs, while misinformation didn’t always lead to less accurate beliefs when compared to the controls.

Results showed that fact-checks increased factual accuracy by .59 points on the five-point scale. Misinformation decreased factual accuracy by less than .07 on the same scale.

“Misinformation is far less persuasive than corrective information, by and large,” Wood said.

In three of the countries (South Africa, Argentina and the UK), the researchers returned two weeks later and asked participants how much they believed the false statements they evaluated earlier.  Results showed that the positive effects of fact-checking were still robust two weeks later.

Two topics were tested in all four countries. One involved climate change, testing how much people believed the false statement, commonly shared at the time, that there were two years of record-breaking global cooling between 2016 and 2018.  Another tested the false statement, which was widely shared near the beginning the Covid-19 pandemic, that gargling saltwater would prevent infection with the coronavirus.

Results showed that exposure to the climate change misinformation did not uniformly lead to people being less accurate on that issue.

But the misinformation regarding Covid-19 did lower accuracy in three of the four countries and had the largest misinformation effects found in the study.  However, the fact-checks did help boost accuracy on this issue.

All participants also completed measurements of their political beliefs, to see if that influenced how they were swayed by fact-checks.

“People in less ideological countries are going to be more factually adherent,” Wood added noting that fact-checking was still a valuable service in four countries that were diverse among racial, economic and political lines.

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