Katherine Clayton, Spencer Blair, Jonathan A. Busam, Samuel Forstner, John Glance, Guy Green, Anna Kawata, Akhila Kovvuri, Jonathan Martin, Evan Morgan, Morgan Sandhu, Rachel Sang, Rachel Scholz-Bright, Austin T. Welch, Andrew G. Wolff, Amanda Zhou, and Brendan Nyhan
Social media has increasingly enabled “fake news” to circulate widely, most notably during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Although it likely did not change the outcome of the election, false news threatens the democratic goal of a well-informed electorate. To combat the harmful effects of this misinformation, Facebook began adding “disputed” tags to articles in users’ news feeds that had been debunked by third-party fact-checking organizations in December 2016. (The company has since switched to providing fact-checks in a “related articles” format underneath suspect stories.) In April 2017 and May 2018, Facebook also promoted tips for spotting false news at the top of users’ feeds.
In our new article in Political Behavior, we investigate whether these and other types of misinformation interventions reduce belief in false stories on social media. Our preregistered online survey experiment tested the effects of three different types of warnings on belief in false news headlines. Participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk were randomly assigned to read a series of true and false news headlines accompanied by “Disputed” tags (Facebook’s original approach), “Rated false” tags (a stronger warning of our own design), or no tags at all. Before doing so, some were also randomly assigned to read a general warning about misinformation on social media that was modeled after Facebook’s tips for spotting false news. Respondents rated the perceived accuracy of each headline as well as their willingness to “like” and “share” the stories on social media.
Our results show that both “Disputed” and “Rated false” tags reduce belief in false news headlines. The “Rated false” tag is more effective, but neither tag measurably reduces individuals’ willingness to “like” or “share” false stories. We also find that providing a general warning about false news modestly reduces belief in false headlines but also reduces belief in true headlines. Paradoxically, efforts to promote greater skepticism toward false news thus risk increasing public distrust of legitimate information.
The spread of “fake news” on social media remains an important concern today. Our findings indicate that specific warnings that alert readers about the credibility of the stories they encounter online are effective. Encouragingly, these results suggest that false news on social media can be countered with some degree of success if we are careful to avoid unintended spillover effects on belief in true stories.