In Research Methods class, you're learning consumer of information skills, such as how to question the accuracy of a journalist's coverage of a scientific article and how to interrogate a causal claim. You're learnign to ask if a causal claim is based on an experiment (rather than a correlational study). In fact, there's an even more fundamental issue that consumers of information are facing: What if the news story you're reading is simply made up?
One example of a fake news story from the Fall of 2016 was one that claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald J. Trump for president. Did you encounter that story? If so, did you believe it? Did others believe it?
Turns out that if people heard the story more than once, they'd probably be more likely to believe it. This lesson comes from experimental research described in this post by Professor Lisa Fazio.
People think that statements they have heard twice are more true than those they have encountered only once. That is, simply repeating false information makes it seem more true.
This effect happens to us all – including people who know the truth. Our research suggests that even people who knew Pope Francis made no presidential endorsement would be susceptible to believing a “Pope endorses Trump” headline when they had seen it multiple times.
In a typical study, participants read a series of true statements (“French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the U.S. Army”) and false ones (“Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office”) and rate how interesting they find each sentence. Then, they are presented with a number of statements and asked to rate how true each one is. This second round includes both the statements from the first round and entirely new statements, both true and false. The outcome: Participants reliably rate the repeated statements as being more true than the new statements.
The story described above is an experiment.
a) What is the independent variable? What is the primary dependent variable? Is the independent variable manipulated as independent groups or within groups?
b) Is the design of the study posttest only? Pretest-posttest? Repeated measures? or Concurrent measures?
Fazio summarizes another experiment, which investigated whether or not people would be less likely to fall for the repetition effect if they were already knowledgable:
...this effect is not limited to obscure or unknown statements, like those about French horn players and Zachary Taylor. Repetition can also bolster belief in statements that contradict participants’ prior knowledge.
For example, even among people who can identify the skirt that Scottish men wear as a kilt, the statement “A sari is the skirt that Scottish men wear” is rated as more true when it is read twice versus only once. On a six-point scale, the participants’ truth ratings increased by half a point when the known falsehoods were repeated. The statements were still rated as false, but participants were much less certain, rating the statements as “possibly false” rather than closer to “probably false.”
This means that having relevant prior knowledge does not protect people from the illusory truth effect. Repeated information feels more true, even if it goes against what you already know.
What's the solution? One idea is to add a note to a fake story (something that Facebook has suggested), which indicates the story is false. Would that work?
According to a Facebook post by Zuckerberg, the site is considering labeling stories that have been flagged as false with a warning message. While this is a commonsense suggestion, and may help to reduce the sharing of false stories, psychological research suggests that it will do little to prevent people from believing that the articles are true.
People tend to remember false information, but forget that it was labeled as false. A 2011 study gave participants statements from sources described as either “reliable” or “unreliable.” Two weeks later, the participants were asked to rate the truth of several statements – the reliable and unreliable statements from before, and new statements as well. They tended to rate the repeated statements as more true, even if they were originally labeled as unreliable.
c) In the study above, what is the independent variable? What is the primary dependent variable? Is the independent variable manipulated as independent groups or within groups?
d) Is the design of the study posttest only? Pretest-posttest? Repeated measures? or Concurrent measures?
e) Sketch a graph of the study. Hint: The independent variable has three levels.
The author of this piece concludes that there may not be much we can do to prevent fake news from influencing its readers. She concludes that:
A true solution would somehow limit the spread of these fake stories, preventing people from seeing them in the first place. A first step that each of us can take is to check our sources and not share unreliable articles on social media, even if they affirm our beliefs.