Tracking your eyes could fight fake news

"All in all, people gave fake news headlines a little less visual attention, despite their being unaware that the headlines were fake," says Casper Hansen.(Credit: byronv2/Flickr)

People spend less time looking at “fake news” headlines than at factual ones, according to a new study.

The research shows that people’s eyes react differently to factual and false news headlines.

Researchers placed 55 different test subjects in front of a screen to read 108 news headlines. A third of the headlines were fake. The researchers assigned test subjects a so-called “pseudo-task” of assessing which of the news items was the most recent. What they didn’t know, was that some of the headlines were fake.

Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers analyzed how much time each person spent reading the headlines and how many fixations the person per headline.

Fake news and our eyes

“We thought that it would be interesting to see if there’s a difference in the way people read news headlines, depending on whether the headlines are factual or false. This has never been studied. And, it turns out that there is indeed a statistically significant difference,” says lead author Christian Hansen, a PhD fellow in the University of Copenhagen’s computer science department.

Researchers selected the headlines from, a news website that publishes Danish news in English. They selected headlines on the basis of the following criteria:

  1. headline content should be widely known to the public,
  2. the headlines should be formulated in roughly the same tone (e.g., no clickbait),
  3. headlines were most likely not to provoke strong emotional responses.

The researchers altered some of the headlines to make them fake by changing individual words, such as by substituting in the word “worst” in the headline: “Copenhagen still worst bicycle city in the world”. They ensured that the headlines remained plausible and sounded natural. All 108 headings in the experiment had a fairly uniform composition, text level, and length.

The 55 test subjects were 19–33 years old, with a fair distribution of women and men. All participants agreed to participate in the trial and allow researchers to track their eye movements.

“The study demonstrated that our test subjects’ eyes spent less time on false headlines and fixated on them a bit less compared with the headlines that were true,” says coauthor Casper Hansen, also a PhD fellow in the same department.

“All in all, people gave fake news headlines a little less visual attention, despite their being unaware that the headlines were fake.”

The computer scientists can’t explain the difference, nor do they dare make any guesses. Nevertheless, the results surprised them.

The researchers then used the results to create an algorithm that can predict whether a news headline is fake based on eye movements.

Tracking what we look at

As a next step, the researchers would like to examine whether it is possible to measure the same differences in eye movements on a larger scale, beyond the lab—preferably using ordinary webcams or mobile phone cameras. It will, of course, require that people allow for access to their cameras.

The two computer scientists imagine that eye-tracking technology could eventually help with the fact-checking of news stories, all depending upon their ability to collect data from people’s reading patterns.

The data could come from news aggregator website users or from the users of other sources, e.g., Feedly and Google News, as well as from social media, like Facebook and Twitter, where the amount of fake news is large as well.

Professional fact-checkers in the media and organizations need to read through lots of material just to find out what needs to be fact-checked. A tool to help them prioritize material could be of great help,” says  Christian Hansen.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the 43nd International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval. Additional researchers are from the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University.

The study is partly funded by Innovation Fund Denmark, through DABAI.

Source: University of Copenhagen