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Research offers insight into fake news and how to build a culture of truth

May 9, 2017 | By Rande Price, Research Director—DCN @Randeloo

The proliferation of fake news in today’s post-truth environment is a major concern. Fake news blurs the lines between fact and fiction and offers no accountability. The Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University collaborated in a deep examination of the current state of fake news. In the report, “Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action,” Matthew Baum (Harvard) and David Lazer (Northeastern) identify key steps, as a community we can act on, to stop the spread of fake news.

Assessing information

Our ability to accept information and misinformation depends a lot on personal evaluations and the social process. First and foremost, people trust information coming from known and familiar sources. They prefer to receive information that confirms our existing views. People also tend to accept new information when the source is perceived as credible or the information confirms our prior views. Often, when the information is unfamiliar or from an opposing source, we choose to ignore it.

Misinformation spread via social media is very powerful because its constantly growing and amplifying with postings and shares. Social media is the loudspeaker that enables users to distribute volumes of fake news. Assessing the credibility of information is challenging given the multitude of sites and sources. Importantly, once fake news is out there, it’s often internalized, normalized, and accepted.

Social influence

People who share fake news are those who tend to share lots of information in general. They are also likely to be leaders and influencers. Very often fake news is created and distributed for a strategic purpose, such as a political or military campaign. Limited attention and information overload affect our ability to differentiate real news from fake news on social networks. In addition, the use of bots amplifies the reach to further manipulate consumer attention.

Interestingly, social pressure also affects the acceptance of information. No one wants to be known for sharing fake news. Given these social pressures, new fact-checking tools may become popular. This offers a way to identify individuals sharing fake news and to develop new dialogues on different issue. Encouraging discussion, especially among people with different perspectives, is an effective way to reduce fake news and misleading information.

Combating fake news

Braum and Lazer believe that to combat fake news, we need to strengthen trusted and established sources and support the news media to further increase the creation of high-quality information. In addition:

  • Establish guidelines for journalists to avoid common consequences in constructing stories and headlines. Journalist should lead with facts, seek out audience-credible interviewee and verify circumstances. News organizations should also reinforce the emotional connection with consumers in their storytelling and unbiased coverage.
  • Research and data should be common practice in the newsroom as much as possible to provide robust and reliable sources of information such as background context, details for understanding important statistics, civics information and more.
  • Perpetrators of fake news should be identified and publicized. There are several known fake news sources. Social platforms must also act to detect and respond to bots spreading fake news. Further, social platforms must establish strict practices to deal with these sites.

Technology and social media both introduce new challenges in the wake of fake news. The platforms, the related technology companies, and the news media outlets must all work to understand how we can encourage a culture that values and promotes truth. We must identify social factors that fosters a culture of truth and to establish interventions that reward and amplify well-sourced news.

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