Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
Given the growing concern around fake news and misinformation, one might intuitively think that highlighting the credibility of information sources would shift consumption away from low-quality sources and therefore decrease the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Sadly, research1 from New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics suggests that might not actually be true.
Indeed, the researchers found that around two-thirds of us completely avoid unreliable sources altogether, with the majority favoring credible sources of information. The researchers focused on the credibility ratings given out by the NewsGuard browser extension, which aims to help users assess the trustworthiness of sources.
“While it’s encouraging that most of us rely on credible sources of information, there are many who turn to sites of questionable trustworthiness, which raises concerns about misperceptions people may hold,” the researchers explain. “However, while our study shows that, overall, credibility ratings have no discernible effect on misperceptions or online news consumption behavior of the average user, our findings suggest that the heaviest consumers of misinformation—those who rely on low-credibility sites—may move toward higher-quality sources when presented with news reliability ratings.”
Over 3,000 volunteers were encouraged to install the NewsGuard extension, which provides different “shield” symbols to each source, with green a reliable source, red an unreliable source, gray user-generated content, and gold satire.
The volunteers were surveyed twice during the study period to gauge the impact the labels had on their behavior. The researchers also harvested anonymized digital trace data to assess the quality of news consumption of around 1,000 of the volunteers. In addition, the volunteers were asked to rate the veracity of five widely circulated statements about both the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, with the statements containing a mixture of true and false comments.
The results show that the majority of people visit credible sources of information, with 65% not using any unreliable sources at all. Indeed, just 1.5% were found to rely exclusively on unreliable sources. Interestingly, the in-browser credibility labels didn’t seem to shift people’s focus from unreliable to reliable sources at all, nor did they change any misperceptions about the inaccurate claims made about BLM or Covid.
Where the labels did make a difference, however, was for users who mainly consumed low-quality news content, as they tended to upgrade to higher-quality sources.
“In our partisan age, when attitudes about news sources are strongly correlated with partisanship, relatively subtle cues like source credibility labels may not be powerful enough to shift news habits and counteract misperceptions among the general public,” other researchers conclude. “However, a key metric of success for this intervention is how it changes the behavior of those who consume the most low-quality news. The fact that it doesn’t work for the overall population doesn’t mean the tool is ineffective. It means it must be part of a far larger toolkit to combat the spread of online misinformation.”
Header image source: Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.
- Aslett, K., Guess, A. M., Bonneau, R., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. A. (2022). News credibility labels have limited average effects on news diet quality and fail to reduce misperceptions. Science advances, 8(18), eabl3844. ↩