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Research: Fake News Doesn't Have Big Impact

New research casts doubt on claims that social-media "fake news" posts and search algorithms sway public opinion. (Pixabay)
New research casts doubt on claims that social-media "fake news" posts and search algorithms sway public opinion. (Pixabay)
May 8, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. – Despite claims by some politicians, fake news, social media and search algorithms don't sway public opinion, according to a study by a group of international researchers.

William Dutton, the report's lead author, says if search engines did help create so-called filter bubbles – where users only get links to information with which they agree – the impacts on the democratic process could be huge.

But he says surveys in seven nations including the U.S. found it's not as big a problem as recent media coverage suggests.

"On social media and on the Internet generally, they find a lot of viewpoints that their friends and family, that they disagree with,” he states. “And they often go to search to check the reliability, validity of what they hear on social media."

After Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton, pundits and pollsters struggled to find answers and many tagged social media for hosting numerous posts that were outright lies.

Dutton says while a minority of Internet users are not skilled in vetting facts, most are not so easily fooled.

The research – commissioned and funded by Google – was conducted independently by Oxford University, Michigan State University and the University of Ottawa.

Dutton says fears of social media echo chambers also are overstated. He notes the survey of 14,000 people found users agree and disagree with political posts on platforms such as Facebook.

And Dutton says people also are exposed to a variety of perspectives on television, radio and print outlets. He adds users rarely unfriend or block people with whom they disagree.

"Most people who are very interested in politics are relying on all sorts of sources of information and not simply search, or not simply social media," he stresses.

Dutton adds a small percentage of Internet users are not adept at fact checking, and it's important for schools at all levels to give people the tools they need to navigate the Internet's resources when it comes to accepting online claims at face value.

"Every effort to create training and education around media literacy in a multimedia digital environment is still valuable,” he stresses. “But it's not a problem for most users, but it is a problem for some users."



Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA