Searching for information has become instant and effortless — just go to your nearest device, ask Siri or click a few keys. But are we better informed than we were before Google became a verb?
A new paper published in Nature hints that we’re not. When researchers exposed volunteers to a mix of fake and real news stories, they found people became more prone to being fooled by fake stories after being asked to do an internet search.
That doesn’t negate the value of search engines, but as with all technology, there can be unintended consequences. Searches on misleading stories often pull people into a spiral of yet more bad information.
The Nature paper included results of several studies. In some, people were asked to evaluate news stories that had just broken in the last 48 hours. In one, they saw stories from recent months on Covid-19, spanning scientific, political and economic angles. In some cases, people were randomly assigned to evaluate stories with or without doing their own search, and in others, the same people were asked to evaluate news items before and after a search.
Participants could classify stories as true, false/misleading, or undetermined. Before doing any research, about 30% of people incorrectly labelled false items as true. Searching led to about a 20% increase over that — after doing online research, about 36% of people classified fake news as fact. While subjects could use any search engine, most chose Google.
Trust in search
University of Central Florida social scientist Kevin Aslett, who led the study while at the Center for Social Media and Politics at NYU, said people put an incredible amount of trust in search engines — more than they put in the mainstream media. And advocates for news literacy often encourage people to go online to check questionable news stories. That’s why he thought online searching deserves more critical attention.
Some of the fake stories included an impending mini ice age; thousands arrested for deliberately setting wildfires in Australia; homeless people defecating in San Francisco supermarket aisles; and news that hydroxychloroquine trials were “designed to kill Covid-19 patients”.
These stories share an emotional valence, touching on such contentious issues as Covid-19 business and school closures, vaccines and vaccine mandates, the Black Lives Matter protests, claims that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory, and various statements by and about former US President Donald Trump.
Looking at how people searched gave Aslett and his colleagues a clue as to why they were becoming increasingly fooled. Stories from what he called low quality news sources often used words or phrases that were specific to a particular claim. One false news item accused US President Joe Biden of engineering a famine. If people googled “engineered famine” they would find other dubious stories, because mainstream news sites didn’t use that phrase.
People are often taught bad approaches to searching, said Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group. They are sometimes wrongly taught they should trust .org sites, for example, or that they should not use Wikipedia.
Some of his own research compared the search methods of professional fact checkers, academics and students, and found the fact checkers gained an edge by more diligently checking into the credibility of a source. People are often deceived by the names of some sources, he said. They thought the Employment Policies Institute was a neutral source, for instance, when further examination would reveal it’s run by a PR firm that works on the behalf of the food and beverage industry and has a vested interest in keeping the minimum wage low.
Fact checkers also tended to scan the results a search engine brings up before selecting which items to read, while other people in his research focused most of their attention on whatever the search algorithm placed on top, assuming that was the highest quality item without putting any thought into how the algorithms work.
One caveat is that even fact checkers don’t always agree. That was also true in the Nature paper, in which six professional fact checkers also vetted each story. The stories on which the fact checkers differed were also the ones where searching led people away from the majority view. These included stories under the headlines, “German official leaks report denouncing Covid-19 as ‘A global false alarm’, ‘Leftie governor Cooper kills RNC convention in Charlotte due to Covid-19 and then goes and marches with leftist mob in street,’ and ‘Forced vaccinations will control your life, warns religious-liberty group’.” All involved contentious material and some subjective judgements outside of concrete facts.
What makes a story credible is complicated. Journalists should explain what they know and how they know it, and show where there’s uncertainty. This new study is a good reminder that the idea that anyone can access the truth with a few keystrokes was always too good to be true. — FD Flam, (c) 2024 Bloomberg LP