Fighting ‘fake news’ can cut trust in reliable sources, too

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Efforts to fight false information increase public skepticism toward “fake news,” but they also breed distrust in genuine, fact-based news sources, new research finds.

Studies have shown that few people actually come across false information in their day-to-day lives. And yet, concerns about the harm “fake news” may have increased in recent years. High-profile events such as the Capitol Riots, vaccine-hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have fueled these concerns.

At the same time, fact-checking initiatives are on the rise. Major news platforms like BBC and CNN have incorporated fact-checking into their regular offerings, while media literacy campaigns have flourished, with programs designed to educate the public on how to make sense of what is true and false.

The new study now shows that these efforts have given rise to an unintended paradox: the very tools used to combat misinformation are fomenting distrust in all news, including from reliable sources.

The researchers conducted three online survey experiments involving 6,127 participants in the US, Poland, and Hong Kong to test the effectiveness of three corrective strategies currently used to combat misinformation—fact-checking, media literacy initiatives, and dedicated news reporting—and compared them with three alternative strategies.

The idea of the redesigned strategies was to foster a critical, yet not overly skeptical, engagement with information. For instance, rather than focusing on whether news is either true or false, one of the redesigned strategies emphasized understanding political biases in news reporting.

The study reveals that the traditional tools as well as the alternative strategies used to debunk myths foster a broader sense of doubt among the public, even toward legitimate information. The redesigned strategies did not significantly outperform traditional tactics in improving the public’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction, although they were slightly better at doing so.

“Public discourse on fake news not only increases skepticism toward false information but also erodes trust in reliable news sources, which play a key role in functioning democracies,” says first author Emma Hoes.

According to Hoes, the potential gains from reducing misperceptions must be carefully weighed against the broader implications of heightened skepticism.

“This is particularly the case in many Western democracies, where reliable, fact-based news is fortunately still much more common than misinformation,” she says.

Hoes and her fellow researchers therefore call for a deeper overhaul of current approaches to misinformation and the need to develop nuanced strategies.

“The path forward is to educate the public on discerning facts with a critical eye, but without leading them to dismiss otherwise reliable information and sources outright.”

The research appears in Nature Human Behaviour.

Researchers from the Universities of Zurich, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Warsaw contributed to the work.

Source: University of Zurich