How search engines are amplifying misinformation – Study

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A new study published by Nature has highlighted how search engines play a key role in the amplification and belief of misinformation while seeking to address the gap.

The study: Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity, looks at how people’s trust in misinformation is affected by the results that search engines like Google provide when they try to evaluate news.

The authors note that while many media literacy interventions encourage people to use search engines to check news, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach in lowering belief in false information.

Since most internet users report using search engines instead of traditional news sources to learn about politics and form opinions about current affairs, it is imperative to determine whether and to what extent utilizing search engines lessens belief in misinformation and disinformation.

Across some experiments, the researchers find that for most users, online search to evaluate the truthfulness of false news articles actually increases the probability of believing them.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to rate the veracity of three news pieces in a randomized control trial to examine the impact of using search to assess news on belief in false information.

While participants in the control group were instructed not to use search engines, those in the treatment group were encouraged to do so in order to aid in their evaluations.

The results defy expectations by demonstrating that those who were encouraged to conduct online searches were more likely to consider a fake or misleading story to be accurate.

The researchers asked the same group of individuals to compare news stories found online and those found elsewhere. The results showed that, after being prompted to search online, 17.6 per cent changed their evaluation to true (for comparison, among those who initially incorrectly rated the article as true; only 5.8 per cent changed their evaluation to false/misleading).

This result contradicts the notion that consumers hold inflexible beliefs that are unalterable. Instead, it appears that assessing fake news with internet search engines can “falsely raise confidence in its veracity.”

The study added that it is also likely that search engines will eventually offer more reliable sources of information because false information spread quickly, even weeks after it was first published.

When asked to re-evaluate the article after treatment, even months after it was published, 18 per cent of respondents rated the same false/misleading story as true, according to the researchers who used a longer time-frame (3-6 months after initial publication) to test the robustness of these findings.

The authors attribute their findings to the concept of a data void, or informational spaces in which there is corroborating evidence from low-quality sources. Search engines frequently provide fewer reliable results when consumers use them to attempt and assess if a news piece is real or false, especially in the wake of breaking news events.

Data voids frequently occur as a result of search engine optimization (SEO) tactics used by low-quality news publishers, who push readers to use specific search queries when searching online by consistently using distinct phrases in their stories which might result in a loop of propaganda feedback.

Through all of these tests, the researchers present strong evidence that dispelling false information is not always possible with ‘doing your own research.’ Just as social media platforms may mislead consumers, so too can online search engines. This tendency may be exacerbated by data voids, which can obscure reliable information beneath a deluge of inaccurate information.

This increases the difficulty of determining the truth and necessitates regular quality checks from search engines, which put up barriers to keep bad news from rising to the top of the results page.

The researchers believe that Google’s strategy of displaying warning indicators when a search query returns no credible results is a positive first step. Search engines need to take extra steps to make sure they are not adding to the issue of people believing things that aren’t true.

Fact-checker at The FactheckHub | [email protected]

Seasoned fact-checker and researcher Fatimah Quadri has written numerous fact-checks, explainers, and media literacy pieces for The FactCheckHub in an effort to combat information disorder. She can be reached at sunmibola_q on X or [email protected].

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