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Focusing on the source can help consumers avoid ‘fake news’

Researchers say consumers’ gut reactions can often hinge on where they pick up information

Photo (c) AdobeStock
Over the past few years, charges of “fake news” have been levied at all levels of media, from online social platforms to some of the biggest institutions in journalism. But a recent study suggests that focusing on the source of a piece of information can help consumers avoid misleading information.

Researchers from Cornell University conducted seven experiments on over 3,000 participants and found that people based their initial reactions to contrasting, new evidence about a topic according to the source it was coming from.

"We wanted to know whether offering information about the source of news matters for people's gut-level, automatic reactions," explained Melissa Ferguson, the study’s co-author. " Our studies suggest that establishing credibility for news sources is the right policy to combat fake news."

Automatic reactions affected by source

Within the seven experiments the researchers conducted, they used a relatable example of judging an imaginary person named Kevin. Before being given the full scenario, the researchers described Kevin in a positive light to participants so that they could develop a baseline opinion of the character.

To test their gut reactions, the researchers then gave participants news from a particular source that detailed something disturbing about Kevin. In one situation, Kevin was said to have been arrested for abusing his wife.

Interestingly, the source of the information factored into participants’ gut reaction upon learning about the news. Participants who learned about the arrest from a police report were more likely to judge Kevin negatively and harshly. However, those who learned about the news from a friend of Kevin’s ex-girlfriend were less likely to take the news seriously and more likely to still view Kevin in a positive light.

"In other words, whether participants thought this new information was true determined even their automatic feelings," the researchers wrote. "And, in a separate experiment, this occurred even if participants initially thought the information was true and only later discovered that it was from a questionable source."

Platforms address false news

While previous studies have suggested that the mania over “fake news” is overblown, several platforms have enacted new policies to stop the spread of misinformation on their sites.

Last month, Twitter announced that it was rolling out a feature that would allow users to report misleading tweets that were related to voting and elections.

“Voting is a fundamental human right and the public conversation occurring on Twitter is never more important than during elections. Any attempts to undermine the process of registering to vote or engaging in the electoral process is contrary to the company’s core values,” the platform said.

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