Erik Bucy researches how people’s levels of understanding about the media influence their ability to separate real from fake news.
In recent years, social media and online platforms have grown from just a way people stay connected to platforms for news and information. As this shift occurred, the lack of editorial review and political fact-checking on social media sites has led to a sharp increase in the spread of digital disinformation, especially during presidential elections.
The growth in bots, automated programs that mimic real user accounts, and fake news purveyors who circulate suspect content online, whether for profit or to advance an agenda, is spreading false facts among the public more than ever before. This has led to confusion and an increased level of distrust in the media. With so much information floating around, it's hard for users to sort through it all and know what is credible and what is not.
According to new research by Erik Bucy, the Marshall and Sharleen Formby Regents Professor of Strategic Communication in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University, a certain level of procedural news knowledge – background information about how mainstream media operate – inoculates news consumers against some of the harmful effects of digital disinformation.
In a newly published paper in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Bucy and Michelle Amazeen, an assistant professor at Boston University, fielded two surveys of U.S. adults to better understand how what people know about the media impacts their ability to sort legitimate from suspect content. A summary of the study, released on Oct. 1, for National News Engagement Day, was featured in the Columbia Journalism Review. The study caught the attention of the Health and Science editor of the Washington Post, Laura Helmuth, who described the article as "important research."
For the study, Bucy and Amazeen asked participants questions that addressed how they believe the media functions: the length of the main nightly newscasts, the difference between news aggregators and traditional news sites, whether newspapers or broadcasters are regulated more and similar items. They also asked about advocacy pieces and who participants believe writes news releases.
"If you can answer these kinds of questions correctly, then you're also able to detect fake news and disinformation," Bucy said. "The bigger question is why such background knowledge allows you to parse the informational wheat from the fake news chaff so well. That's what I'm getting to eventually."
After posing these questions, Bucy and Amazeen showed participants real and fabricated political headlines and asked them to identify which were contrived and which were made up. They also asked participants to evaluate native advertising, or sponsored online content that looks like legitimate news features. Across these different types of suspect content, the study found that adults with higher levels of procedural news knowledge were better able to differentiate between the two.
So-called "news experts" also were less likely to like and share fake information on social media, and they were more likely to question, or counter-argue with, headlines and articles that seemed suspicious – as though they were incorrect or dubious in origin.
"Holding procedural knowledge about the press means you can not only identify disinformation, but you also have the ability to discount and counter-argue with it, meaning you can marshal arguments about why it's not true," Bucy said.
Some parts of the changing media landscape, including native ads, are adding to the confusion people have about what news stories are real. Bucy said these subtle forms of persuasion, which are published on legitimate news sites but only identified with small indicators showing they are paid for, blur the lines between editorial and sponsored content. To the casual observer, they seem no different than actual journalism.
"Now, imagine these bogus headlines or full-length articles come across your phone or your screen while you're doing 15 other things," Bucy said. "It's very hard sometimes, even for informed people, to know what's real and what's not, what's true, what's false – what's really news and what's really opinion or advocacy. So it all just seems like information that is equally valid."
News knowledge and the Dunning-Kruger effect
In the social sciences, the Dunning-Kruger effect refers to how people mistake their level of knowledge or expertise about a subject.
Bucy said people at the lower end of expertise across different domains tend to overestimate how informed they actually are. They exaggerate their knowledge, but do not realize they are doing so. On the other side, people with more expertise tend to underestimate how much they know. They assume a subject is simply easy to understand and therefore everyone must know everything they need to know about it.
Work in progress that Bucy presented to a workshop on Digital Threats to Democracy hosted by the Social Science Research Council in New York last May examines the Dunning-Kruger effect in relation to news knowledge in both the U.S. and the U.K.
When it comes to media, the effect highlights a dilemma: no matter what people's actual level of news knowledge, they probably do not think the quality of information available is a problem and something they need to spend time studying or resolving. People with lower levels of knowledge think they already know a lot about journalism practices, even though they likely have misperceptions about mainstream media. People at the high end think everyone, like them, understands how journalism practices work, so society can't be that misinformed. Therefore, news literacy seems like a nonissue.
"If you have consumers at the lower end overestimating and just accepting false information, and those at the higher end not thinking it's not a big deal, you can see why we're in the situation we're in now, which is a lot of people just acquiescing to it," Bucy said. "There are efforts by some media organizations and advocacy groups to improve understanding about the news, but they are piecemeal in approach. There is no national strategy to address the need for reliable news and information in society."
Social media's role
As society comes to rely more on digital sources and social media platforms for news, the spread of disinformation continues to grow. The never-ending flow of information that users have to keep up with on social media is a contributing factor to lower levels of news knowledge.
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram overwhelm the user's ability to process information because of how much content there is and how frequently it appears. Unlike legacy media programs and publications, there is no beginning or end to a social media feed. Online content – some of it real, some of it bot-generated – also is being pushed out at a faster pace than ever before, making it harder for users to sort through all the posts.
"We just can't keep up," Bucy said. "Not only can we not keep up, we don't have the time or the interest to verify each thing that comes across our feed. Psychology tells us that the tendency when we're first confronted with information is to accept it as real and true. Then later, if we have a question about it, we might go back and reject it. But when things flow by at an algorithmic pace, we don't have time, or even the memory, to go back and verify everything. So a false fact or false image can stick."
This constant flow of information continuously tests people's ability to effectively parse the media landscape, making it difficult for even the most well-informed user to decipher what they are encountering as real or fake. This can lead to people sharing false information, either for entertainment purposes or because they think it has some truth value. Regardless of motive, these shares only add to the user's sense of information overload.
Bucy said social media platforms were never meant to operate like news platforms. However, the more Facebook, Twitter and other popular social media sites distribute news, the more the lack of editorial policing tilts in favor of propagandists who want to use these platforms to persuade on the basis of false facts. And the more disinformation on these platforms, the harder it is for users to defend against it.
"It's a mismatch between the way information dissemination has evolved and people's ability to contend with it," Bucy said. "We can't all be editors; we can't all be fact-checkers."
At the ground level, people may benefit from more knowledge about how news media work. To accomplish this, Bucy said one solution is to place greater emphasis in education on journalism training and news literacy. A recent book chapter he wrote on how fake news finds an audience sketches out an action plan, including requiring journalism classes in high school and college.
"Think of communication skills in today's society as a three-legged stool," Bucy said. "Right now we've got composition classes everybody has to take in high school and middle school. Everybody also has to take public speaking, particularly in college. But a stool doesn't stand on two legs. The third leg, to me, is journalism education, and I think that's got to be a new requirement if we're going to be serious about information literacy."
In composition and public speaking courses, Bucy said, a core competency students are taught is essentially how to argue. They draft a thesis statement and defend it with arguments and facts. They compose a speech and make a compelling case to classmates. While these exercises teach students how to conduct background research and develop a stance on a topic, it does not teach them to become neutral observers of public events the way journalism training does. Bucy's observations, in part, flow from his personal experience as a former newspaper reporter and academic journal editor.
By adding journalism classes early and throughout students' educational careers, they would learn the standards of publication in mainstream media, Bucy said. They also would internalize information values related to verification, fact-checking, accountability and credibility, leading to more informed news consumption. This would increase their news knowledge early in life and make citizens more likely to reject or call out disinformation.
"The more we can do as educators and as advocates of informed citizenship, I think the better off we'll be and the healthier political discussions we'll have," Bucy said.
Bucy said other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, are starting to tackle disinformation on a coordinated basis and working to better educate the public about the media industry. Here in the U.S., the Trusting News Project is advising newsrooms on how to reestablish trust with the public to improve the mainstream media's reputation and help stop the spread of fake news. In the U.K., the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, where Bucy was a visiting fellow, also is conducting valuable research.
While such efforts are being made, Bucy said the U.S. needs to start embracing these models of citizen education on a larger scale. Given uneven levels of news knowledge among the public, and in the absence of new regulation of digital platforms, disinformation will continue to spread throughout the media landscape, making it even harder to sort through what is real and fake. Bucy equates the whole situation to a virus – if antidotes are not developed and put to use, the issue is bound to get worse.
"We should think about encouraging people to be more proactive about their media knowledge," Bucy said. "We could make more progress by looking at how we as educators and researchers can assist and really empower individuals from the perspective of democratic citizenship."