Partisan biases increase vulnerability to fake news – Study


A study published on Frontiers in Psychology has shown that while news media literacy helps individuals recognize and doubt news from unfamiliar sources, strong partisan biases can make people vulnerable to fake news. 

The study titled: True, justified, belief? Partisanship weakens the positive effect of news media literacy on fake news detection aimed to examine how people judge the accuracy of news content in the digital age.

“Understanding what improves detection of misinformation and disinformation is of global concern. A great deal of high-quality research has suggested that technological factors, such as a chaotic social media environment, can lead to quick, surface-level, consideration of new information,” said the author Daniel Sude, a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University.

“We believed, however, that the problem went deeper than that. Drawing on social-cognitive psychology and communication science, we argued that even people who want to process more deeply may do so in biased ways. Even people who are aware of their potential for bias may have difficulty truly correcting for that bias.”

“Further, we disputed the notion that mere detection of “fake news” should be society’s goal. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. We wanted to know what led people to be justifiably skeptical of content from unfamiliar news outlets, even if this content turned out to be true. Believing true information by accident, or rejecting false information by accident, is not, in our minds, sufficient. We want to know what leads people to take their time and patiently come to, hopefully correct, conclusions. Our two-study paper is just one of many tackling that question.”

The study involved two separate participant groups, with 1,008 individuals in the first study and 1,397 in the second. These participants were recruited through Qualtrics, a platform that facilitates online surveys. To be eligible, participants needed to be eligible voters in the United States and be aware of the potential exposure to misinformation on the web.

Participants viewed Facebook-like news posts with standard social media elements, including a logo, headline, image, and news organization URL. The method, according to the researchers, was to ensure experimental control and preserved ecological validity for real-world applicability.

The first part of the study focused on politically consonant fake news content. The participants were shown news posts that included content supporting their political leanings. For example, a politically consonant fake news headline for Democrats was: “Trump Say Republicans Are the ‘Dumbest Group of Voters.’”

The participants were also shown other types of content such as politically dissonant fake news and apolitical fake news. This mix was intended to obscure the primary purpose of the study and mimic the diverse content typically encountered on social media. The news posts were attributed to various news outlets, including both mainstream and alternative media sources.

The second study replicated and extended the approach of the first, but with a focus on real news headlines instead of fake news. The real news headlines were also attributed to a mix of mainstream and alternative news outlets, and the study aimed to differentiate impressions of the content from impressions of the outlets themselves.

The researchers controlled for a range of factors that might influence how participants interacted with the news content, such as information literacy, political interest, trust in news media and various institutions, reliance on intuition for assessing facts, the need for evidence in forming beliefs, perceptions that truth is influenced by politics, belief in conspiracy theories, and the extent of news exposure.

The study revealed that content from less recognized news sources was generally seen as less accurate than mainstream outlets, indicating natural skepticism towards unfamiliar sources.  However, for individuals with strong political biases, the study shows that the relationship is reversed, with political leanings influencing vulnerability to misinformation. 

According to the study, higher news media literacy generally enhanced discernment of source credibility, but this effect was not consistent for strong partisans. The findings emphasize the need for multi-faceted interventions addressing both news media literacy enhancement and partisan biases in combating fake news spread. 

The authors encouraged designing interventions that improve both accuracy and critical thinking about accuracy.

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Nurudeen Akewushola is a fact-checker with FactCheckHub. He has authored several fact checks which have contributed to the fight against information disorder. You can reach him via [email protected] and @NurudeenAkewus1 via Twitter.


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