Are you good at spotting Fake News?

A new study within the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in June, 2021, offers a fascinating insight into how easily Fake News can completely fool some. I’m holding off on the title of the study because it is a bit of a reveal.

Let me begin by asking you a question. How good are your Fake News spotting skills?

Pause reading, and ponder the question. Would you consider yourself below average, average, or very very smart when it comes to stuff like that, and so it is only the truly silly gullible people who are too stupid to know any better that get sucked in?

Most would acknowledge that fake news is common. Strangely enough, many also claim that they have not personally come across it very much. Knowing this, the researchers thought to themselves that this very odd observation appears to suggest that many people are being successfully fooled by fake news, so they decided to look into this.

What Did the researchers actually do?

Participants were asked to rate their Fake News spotting skills and then they were also exposed to news stories and asked which were fake and which were real.

The study was run during the 2018 midterm elections, so the News Articles used relate to that time. Here are some details:

Respondents evaluated 12 total articles: 4 mainstream news articles that were congenial to Democrats (2 from low-prominence sources and 2 from high-prominence sources), 4 mainstream news articles that were congenial to Republicans (2 from low-prominence sources and 2 from high-prominence sources), 2 pro-Democrat false news articles, and 2 pro-Republican false news articles.

Are you curious to know what the fake articles were?

OK, here you go …

Pro-Democrat false news

VP Mike Pence Busted Stealing Campaign Funds To Pay His Mortgage Like A Thief http:// funds-to-pay-his-mortgage-like-a-thief/

Vice President Pence now being investigated for campaign fraud his ties to Russia and for-campaign-fraud-his-ties-to-russia-and-manafort/

Pro-Republican false news

Special Agent David Raynor was due to testify against Hillary Clinton when he died http:// s-cover-up-found-dead

Lisa Page Squeals: DNC Server Was Not Hacked By Russia – lisa-page-squeals-dnc-server-not-hacked-russia/

If you consider your political leanings, then the ones designed to fool “Them” are very obviously false, but what about the other two. Would the stories that pander to what you believe to be true have successfully fooled you at that time?

What did they discover?

The interesting thing here is that they not only measured how good the participants were at actually spotting fake news, but also how good they thought they were.

By having both of those measures they arrived at some very interesting insights.

First, they reveal the following concerning how good people think they are at spotting Fake News…

we show that three in four Americans overestimate their relative ability to distinguish between legitimate and false news headlines; respondents place themselves 22 percentiles higher than warranted on average

That in turn is then tied to how well they actually did …

We show that overconfident individuals are more likely to visit untrustworthy websites in behavioral data; to fail to successfully distinguish between true and false claims about current events in survey questions; and to report greater willingness to like or share false content on social media, especially when it is politically congenial.

In other words, the individuals who are least equipped to identify false news content are also the least aware of their own limitations and, therefore, more susceptible to believing it and spreading it further.

Should we be worried?

That’s a yes. It was over 70% of the participants that demonstrated this overconfidence.

A big part of the problem here is not simply the very existence of Information that is being promoted to manipulate people, but also this revelation that many people are completely unaware of how easy it is for them to be completely and totally fooled and that their confidence that they are good at spotting fake news lulls them into a false sense of security.

Interestingly enough, it tends to also suggest that self-doubt is not a disadvantage but instead an advantage. Those sufficiently aware enough to be conscious of their own political biases and the ease with which that can be used to manipulate, also tend to be more analytical. Instead of hitting “Share” because something hits an emotional button, they will pause and wonder if it is actually true.

While this study was of course US based, I’d personally predict that if you ran the same tests for other nations and cultures you would find similar results.

Further Reading

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