Fake News Paradox: The Shocking Way Your Google Searches Could Be Fooling You

Computer Search Hacking Conspiracy

A new study shows that searching online to evaluate news actually increases belief in misinformation, particularly when search engines return low-quality information. This highlights the need for better media literacy programs and improved search engine responses. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

Surprising study results show limits of using recommended steps to debunk false content.

Conventional wisdom suggests that searching online to evaluate the veracity of misinformation would reduce belief in it. But a new study by a team of researchers shows the opposite occurs: Searching to evaluate the truthfulness of false news articles actually increases the probability of believing misinformation.

The findings, which will be published today (December 20) in the journal Nature, offer insights into the impact of search engines’ output on their users—a relatively under-studied area.

Impact of Search Engines on User Beliefs

“Our study shows that the act of searching online to evaluate news increases belief in highly popular misinformation—and by notable amounts,” says Zeve Sanderson, founding executive director of New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP) and one of the paper’s authors.

The reason for this outcome may be explained by search-engine outputs—in the study, the researchers found that this phenomenon is concentrated among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information.

“This points to the danger that ‘data voids’—areas of the information ecosystem that are dominated by low quality, or even outright false, news and information—may be playing a consequential role in the online search process, leading to low return of credible information or, more alarming, the appearance of non-credible information at the top of search results,” observes lead author Kevin Aslett, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and a faculty research affiliate at CSMaP.

Methodology and Focus of the Nature Study

In the newly published Nature study, Aslett, Sanderson, and their colleagues studied the impact of using online search engines to evaluate false or misleading views—an approach encouraged by technology companies and government agencies, among others.

To do so, they recruited participants through both Qualtrics and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk—tools frequently used in running behavioral science studies—for a series of five experiments and with the aim of gauging the impact of a common behavior: searching online to evaluate news (SOTEN).

Exploring Online Search Behavior and Its Impact

The first four studies tested the following aspects of online search behavior and impact:

  • The effect of SOTEN on belief in both false or misleading and true news directly within two days an article’s publication (false popular articles included stories on COVID-19 vaccines, the Trump impeachment proceedings, and climate events)
  • Whether the effect of SOTEN can change an individual’s evaluation after they had already assessed the veracity of a news story
  • The effect of SOTEN months after publication
  • The effect of SOTEN on recent news about a salient topic with significant news coverage—in the case of this study, news about the COVID-19 pandemic

A fifth study combined a survey with web-tracking data in order to identify the effect of exposure to both low- and high-quality search-engine results on belief in misinformation. By collecting search results using a custom web browser plug-in, the researchers could identify how the quality of these search results may affect users’ belief in the misinformation being evaluated.

The study’s source credibility ratings were determined by NewsGuard, a browser extension that rates news and other information sites in order to guide users in assessing the trustworthiness of the content they come across online.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Across the five studies, the authors found that the act of searching online to evaluate news led to a statistically significant increase in belief in misinformation. This occurred whether it was shortly after the publication of misinformation or months later. This finding suggests that the passage of time—and ostensibly opportunities for fact checks to enter the information ecosystem—does not lessen the impact of SOTEN on increasing the likelihood of believing false news stories to be true. Moreover, the fifth study showed that this phenomenon is concentrated among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information.

“The findings highlight the need for media literacy programs to ground recommendations in empirically tested interventions and search engines to invest in solutions to the challenges identified by this research,” concludes Joshua A. Tucker, professor of politics and co-director of CSMaP, another of the paper’s authors.

Reference: “Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity” by Kevin Aslett, Zeve Sanderson, William Godel, Nathaniel Persily, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua A. Tucker, 20 December 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06883-y

The paper’s other authors included William Godel and Jonathan Nagler of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, and Nathaniel Persily of Stanford Law School.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (2029610).

5 Comments on "Fake News Paradox: The Shocking Way Your Google Searches Could Be Fooling You"

  1. Many, if not most, print newspapers are experiencing declining readership, and consequently reduced advertising. The one thing that traditional newspapers might provide is greater perceived veracity if they are rigorously objective, which they aren’t now. They have editors and journalists on staff who have been exposed to the tradition of validating sources and stories. If the public perceived newspapers (print and/or digital) as being more reliable than social media or other sources, then it might lead to more skepticism over the false news. However, as long as the media moguls see their role as using their newspapers to promote their political agenda [Does anyone seriously doubt that the NY Times has a liberal bent, or that FOX News has a conservative leaning?], they are tainting their reputation and insuring that people will look for alternative sources. “You reap what you sow.”

  2. stephen schaffer | December 21, 2023 at 9:54 am | Reply

    Television was trumpeted to be the great educational tool. Oh well. The internet was the great device for communication. Seriously? Are communicating better now?
    The moment Craigs List appeared and advertising revenue for printed news organizations collapsed followed by billions more internet advertising.
    Without a robust Fourth Estate Americans know nothing about what the government at any level or lobbyists are up to. No more press clubs of thousands of journalists who dig for the truth.
    Now it feels to me that we are back in the Middle Ages – it’s all rumors, opinions and ignorance.
    Au revoir civilization.

    • Obviously, lobbyists are in the business of lobbying for their employers. What’s new? I suspect that we know more about government than before, thanks to freedom of information laws, leaks and the parties trying to find the dirt on the other side.

  3. “this phenomenon is concentrated among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information.” So why do search engines return lower quality information for some?

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