Researchers have found that false online claims are not eliminated simply by marking them as such, but that they should be accompanied by fact checks that provide additional information to counter them.
Researchers have discovered that fact checks on dubious claims are a “more effective counter” to Covid-19 misinformation than simply tagging the claims as ‘false’ as social media outlets commonly do.
“We find that more information may be an antidote to misinformation,” political scientists Sarah Kreps and Douglas Kriner of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY sum up their findings.
Kreps is the John L. Wetherill Professor and interim chair of government and director of the Cornell Tech Policy Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences, while Kriner is the Clinton Rossiter Professor in American Institutions in the Department of Government (A&S) and faculty director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs; both are faculty in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.
Together they have written a paper, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, called “The Covid-19 Infodemic and the Efficacy of Interventions Intended to Reduce Misinformation.”
The researchers note that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a massive influx of misinformation about the spread of the virus, the efficacy of vaccines and other treatments, and more, that puts public health at risk. The misinformation also tends to overpower factual content and encourage people to take measures that are “ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted social media platforms to take unprecedented steps—ranging from false tags to journalistic fact checks—to staunch the flow of misinformation that could pose a health risk,” Kreps and Kriner write. “However, there is little evidence about the relative efficacy of these approaches in this unique context of a pandemic.”
Media outlets have come up with two methods to discuss false claims: they either use ‘false’ tags, noting that a statement contains “false information, checked by independent fact-checkers,” without providing access to further details, or they flag the post as ‘false’ and provide additional information that disproves the claims made in the post.
The fact checks used by media outlets have been generally used to gauge the accuracy of claims by political candidates. The research published in Public Opinion Quarterly is one of the first projects to examine them in the context of the pandemic.
Kriner and Kreps used a pair of online, demographically representative surveys of 2,000 Americans for their research, which included embedded experiments. They “tested examples of fact checks and false tags on false claims that would resonate with an array of viewpoints on the pandemic.”
They write that they examined “whether false tags and journalistic fact checks reduce accuracy misperceptions and sharing propensity on social media that can spread false claims.
For example, former President Donald Trump had posited that the United States had tested more for Covid-19 than every country combined. When the researchers looked at participants’ perception of the claim’s accuracy, if it was tagged simply as false, the tag had no effect – in fact, it actually increased their likelihood of sharing it on social media.
However, if Trump’s claim was tagged false supported by a journalistic fact check that provided further information, they were much less likely to believe the fake claim.
The researchers say that sharing habits and actions present a “useful window” into how individuals process information and misinformation.
According to the researchers, “False tags had little effect on subjects’ accuracy assessments and social media sharing. Journalistic fact checks that offer accurate information to counter misinformation were more effective in reducing both misperceptions and sharing on social media.”
They added that “Further, we find no evidence of partisan backfire effects, even in response to interventions against claims with a plausible partisan valence.”
Previous research has revealed that sharing is an important indicator because it can “extend the reach of news,” and a self-reported willingness to share “offers genuine insight” into how people would act on social media.
The researchers conclude with “Our results suggest that journalistic fact checks provide an effective counter narrative to COVID-19 misinformation even in the context of the increasing politicization of America’s pandemic response and polarization more generally.”