Consumers of fake news: Why people read untrustworthy sources online

October 19 lecture is part of the 2020 Trottier Public Science Symposium under the theme "In whom do we trust?"

This is the age of the pandemic. But it is also the age of the “infodemic,” in which we are relentlessly bombarded by a tsunami of information, the reliability of which is often questionable, especially when the source is social media.

In face of the seriousness of the health and societal problems we have to confront, judging the trustworthiness of the information we use to guide ourselves is becoming more and more critical. However, making such judgments is not an easy matter. Possible vested interests, evaluation of appropriate expertise, sources of published information, extent of peer review, scientific plausibility, the difference between anecdote and evidence, reliance on confirmation bias, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and the reproducibility of cited research all have to be considered before we jump onto one of the many bandwagons that are rolling by.

This year, the 2020 Trottier Public Science Symposium (October 19 and 26) will address the question of “in whom do we trust?”

As part of the Symposium, Brendan Nyhan will present “The Consumers of ‘Fake News’: Why people read untrustworthy sources online.” A Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College whose research focuses on misperceptions about politics and health care, Nyhan co-authored All the President’s Spin, a New York Times bestseller, and has served as a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review. His talk will take place on October 19, at 12 pm ET. The talk will be streamed live

Brendan Nyhan is an author, media critic and a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College

What is the biggest bit of “fake news” you have seen about “fake news” and misinformation?

Many people think that “fake news” was ubiquitous during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and changed the election’s outcome. In reality, though, news from untrustworthy websites made up a small proportion of people’s information diets. Moreover, the people who did consume the most information from these websites already had very conservative news consumption habits. As a result, it’s unlikely that exposure to untrustworthy websites changed many people’s views – most people who saw them were already supporting Donald Trump. The misinformation that these websites sometimes promote is still worrisome, but we have to be more precise in thinking about the threat that untrustworthy news poses.

Where does political misinformation mainly come from in 2020?

Political candidates and the mainstream media are the primary source of misinformation. It’s easy to blame the Internet for the flaws of our political system but we have a president here in the U.S. who has made more than 20,000 false statements while in office. He is a far more important source of misinformation than obscure websites. With that said, the media ecosystem often amplifies misinformation both the mainstream media, which too often credulously repeats false and unsupported claims, and social media, which tends to amplify the claims that generate the most engagement.

Do you think social media companies are doing enough to prevent harmful misinformation from spreading on their platforms?

The social media companies are doing more than they did in 2016. Whether they are doing enough is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, they are often too slow to respond to the worst misinformation, which disseminates widely before the platforms can take action. On the other hand, the pressure to intervene aggressively may cause social media companies such as Facebook to exercise too much power over our political debate in the U.S. We need to have a broader debate about the proper role of platform content moderation in free democratic societies – it’s a difficult balance to strike.

What are some basic tips people can learn to better sort through the information ecosystem they face every day?

The first and most important thing is just to slow down and consider the accuracy of the headline or news you’ve just encountered. Studies show that simply considering accuracy can help people better distinguish between true and false information. You can then ask some simple questions about what you’ve seen: Is the source credible? Has the news been confirmed in other reports? Is the headline shocking or unbelievable? Importantly, everyone still gets fooled sometimes. Make sure to delete false information that you discover you’ve shared and to respectfully encourage your friends and family to do the same.