Fake news has been dominating real news since last year’s U.S. presidential election. Its effect has been debated and politicized, and in the process, the term itself has lost its original meaning and become something of a partisan insult. But an underlying question still needs answering: Can people distinguish legitimate sources of information from fake ones?
A majority of Americans are confident that they can, according to surveys. But it might be more difficult than it seems in an increasingly fragmented media landscape, with countless information sources tailored to every ideological taste.
Here’s how I did the research
To find out how well-informed people can tell true from false, I conducted a study on a sample of about 700 undergraduates at the University of British Columbia. These were primarily political science students interested in current events, who said they frequently read and watch news, on and offline. I thought that they would easily spot fake news websites. I was wrong.
First, I presented the students with images of banners of actual news websites. These varied from an established Canadian daily newspaper — the Globe and Mail — to mainstream online publications like Yahoo News and more partisan outlets like the HuffPost, Fox News and the far-right Breitbart.com. Although the study was conducted outside the United States, Canadians are familiar with the U.S. media market, consume news from U.S. sources and tend to follow U.S. politics.
I also showed them images of logos from three fake news sites, some of which gained prominence during the U.S. presidential election. One site was ABCnews.com.co, a fake news site whose name and logo is similar to that of the U.S. television network. A second was the Boston Tribune, and a third was World True News.
After viewing the logos, the students were asked to rate the legitimacy of each news source on a scale from 0-100, with 100 being very legitimate and 0 being not legitimate at all. Not surprisingly, the Globe and Mail was viewed as the most legitimate, with an average score of 68, as you can see in the graph below.
But two of the fake news sources did surprisingly well. ABCnews.com.co, which illegally parrots the circular logo of ABC News, received an average legitimacy score of 52, while the Boston Tribune, which includes the tagline “News you can trust” got an average legitimacy score of 54. Both of these sources attempt to look like traditional news sites, and unsuspecting news consumers might accept them as legitimate. World True News scored a 33, which may have to do with both its name — perhaps consumers think that a site calling itself “True” is trying to hide something — and the fact that its logo looks less like a traditional news site.
Interpreting this finding is not entirely straightforward. On the one hand, respondents may have given ABCnews.com.co and the Boston Tribune relatively high scores simply because they weren’t familiar with them. Indeed, a relatively large number of respondents rated the two sources at the midpoint of the scale, which could have been a default response indicating a lack of familiarity. And since respondents didn’t see any actual news content, we don’t know how the fake news sites’ ratings would change if they were paired with stories that might have been viewed as suspicious or outright false.
But the findings are consistent with other recent work. A few months ago, researchers from Stanford University found that young students, ranging from middle to high school, had a hard time distinguishing good sources of information from questionable ones. For example, 82 percent of students couldn’t differentiate sponsored content from a real news story.
My work suggests that the problem might extend to politically attentive university students. And it might be worse among the broader public, which is composed of more people who spend less time consuming news, are less interested in current events and lack higher education.
Further, ideology clearly affects how respondents rate news site legitimacy. Liberal students, who made up the majority of the sample, attributed more legitimacy to fake news sites that looked real, like ABC News.com.co and the Boston Tribune, and fake news that looks fake, like World True News, than to Fox News.
What does it mean for democracy?
The implications of these findings are troubling. At a time when all of us are asked to be our own informational gatekeepers, many lack the necessary skills to separate actual journalism from predatory clickbait falsehoods, while ideological and partisan biases only make these decisions more difficult.
The fact that even the digital natives might fall prey to fake news sites suggests that perhaps media literacy should become a component of curriculums, including in college.
Dominik Stecula is a PhD candidate in political science and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.