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Labeling false news stories could lead to more misinformation

Researchers say readers wind up believing other false stories if they aren’t labeled

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Photo (c) yavorskiy - Getty Images
As experts continue to look for ways that consumers can avoid misinformation on the internet, researchers from MIT have looked at how efforts to label false news stories have affected consumers. 

The study revealed that when sites label certain stories as “fake news,” consumers are more likely to then take stories without those labels as fact, which isn’t always the case. 

“Putting a warning on some content is going to make you think, to some extent, that all of the other content without the warning might have been checked and verified,” said researcher David Rand. “There’s no way the fact-checkers can keep up with the stream of misinformation, so even if the warnings do really reduce belief in the tagged stories, you still have a problem, because of the implied truth effect.” 

How labels can help and hurt

To understand consumers’ thought processes when confronted with potentially fake news, the researchers had over 6,700 participants involved in the study. 

The participants were divided into three groups. All three groups received an even mix of news headlines that were true and false. One of the groups had some of their stories labeled true and some labeled false; another group only had some of their stories labeled false; and the third group had none of their stories labeled. 

The participants had to look at the title of the articles and any of the labeling available to them to decide whether or not they’d share the story on social media. 

The researchers learned that labels are crucial in helping consumers decide what to share, in both positive and negative ways. While articles clearly labeled false were good indicators for the participants to avoid sharing them on social media, having no labels could contribute to the spread of misinformation. 

The study found that when no labels were used, participants shared just about 30 percent of false news stories. However, when some stories were flagged as false and others had no tags, participants were likely to buy into their validity. Seeing some stories labeled as false led the participants to believe that unlabeled stories were true, and they ultimately ended up sharing over 36 percent of the fake headlines. 

“We robustly identify this implied-truth effect, where if false content doesn’t have a warning, people believe it more and say they would be more likely to share it,” said Rand. 

Adding more labels

The solution? Add even more labels. 

The researchers found that the use of a “verified label,” meaning a story had been fact-checked and is accurate, eliminates any uncertainty. 

This also helped cut down the number of fake headlines that were shared. When stories labeled as accurate were thrown into the mix, the participants shared less than 27 percent of the fake stories. 

“If, in addition to putting warnings on things fact-checkers find to be false, you also put verification panels on things fact-checkers find to be true, then that solves the problem, because there’s no longer any ambiguity,” Rand said. “If you see a story without a label, you know it simply hasn’t been checked.” 

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