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Real news about fake news: Why partisanship plays a major role in misinformation's spread

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Real news about fake news: Why partisanship plays a major role in misinformation's spread

Laura Hazard Owen, Nieman Lab | June 23, 2017

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“Only Hungary has a bigger gap…” The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2017, out this week, touches on all kinds of digital news trends — see here for Nieman Lab’s general roundup and here for two of the report’s authors’ takes on how social media may actually diversify people’s media diets. There’s also more on fake news in the report: “Definitions of ‘fake news’ are fraught with difficulty and respondents frequently mix up three categories: (1) news that is ‘invented’ to make money or discredit others; (2) news that has a basis in fact, but is ‘spun’ to suit a particular agenda; and (3) news that people don’t feel comfortable about or don’t agree with,” the authors write. “In our analysis very few people can accurately recall having seen items in category 1, except in the United States.”

Residents of 36 different countries were asked to indicate their level of agreement with the following statements: (1) “I think you can trust most news most of the time” and (2) “I think I can trust most of the news I consume most of the time.” In the U.S., 38 percent of respondents agreed with the first statement, and 53 percent agreed with the second: “Only Hungary, another deeply polarized country, has a bigger gap between general trust (31 percent) and the sources you use (54 percent).”

The researchers produced “polarization scores” for countries where “where the left-right distinction is meaningful: Our European countries, Australia and the USA.” (“In other countries, the left–right distinction is less important than other divisions. [Turkey, for example, is politically polarized between adherents of Islamism and supporters of Kemalism.]”) The U.S., um, wins when it comes to polarization.

The survey also finds that most distrust of the media comes from the right in the U.S. and from the left in the U.K.

And when it comes to reasons that people actively avoid the news, U.S. conservatives are much more likely than liberals to say that they avoid it because “I can’t rely on news to be true.”

“The passage of this bill will encourage our citizens, especially public officers, to be more responsible and circumspect.” In the Philippines, Senator Joel Villanueva introduced a bill that would jail or fine people and companies that spread fake news (with particularly stiff penalties for government officials who do so). Fake news and pro-Duterte propaganda are a big problem in the Philippines. Filipinos are heavy users of Facebook (access to which is free under some mobile carriers), and journalist Maria Ressa — who runs the news site Rappler, linked to above — told the CBC this spring that many Filipinos let their mobile data run out and just rely on free Facebook, which “helps both the disinformation and misinformation, because if you can’t afford the data, what you see on your free Facebook is the [headline]” (Rappler “releases some of its stories in chunks on Facebook Messenger, so Filipinos can see them for free”); more on Rappler here).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines also issued a pastoral letter this week telling Catholics to stop spreading fake news, “a sin against charity.”

“Maybe news media should cover less news about fake news.” “The agenda-setting power of fake news: A big data analysis of the online media landscape from 2014 to 2016″ was released last week by researchers at Boston University. The paper argues that “fake news has an intricately entwined relationship with online partisan media, both responding and setting its issue agenda,” but provides little specific evidence of this, and also doesn’t differentiate between articles that debunk fake news and articles that seek to spread it further — a couple of reasons I decided not to include the paper in last week’s roundup. In a follow-up interview, two of the paper’s authors — BU professors Michelle Amazeen and Lei Guo — talk a bit more about their research. Guo: “We believe no matter how media cover the fake news, they do drive people’s attention to the fake news, therefore in some way helping distribute the fake news…In this light, news media might want to devote less time and resources to covering news about fake news…Maybe news media should cover less news about fake news. If news consumers are not sure about a claim, they can go to credible/professional fact-checking websites for more information.” Most people aren’t going to do that. In addition, I disagree with the idea that mass media should ignore fake news reports rather than trying to debunk them.

This article first appeared on Nieman Lab and is republished with permission. 

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via David Colarusso.

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