Factually: How much is misinformation to blame for news avoidance?

The idea that the spread of misinformation makes some people want to tune out the news altogether has always lent a paradoxical quality to the work of fact-checkers and other truth-tellers. It’s hard to deliver the truth if people are avoiding the news because they think there are too many falsehoods out there.

Now comes another factor to consider, from the Reuters Institute’s recent2019 Digital News Report, which studies news trends worldwide. The number of people who actively avoid the news, the report said, is up from the last time the report’s authors asked the question two years ago. But people avoid the news not just because they don’t believe what they read, or don’t think they can believe it. It also has to do with how the news makes them feel.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the report said, over half of respondents said the news “had a negative impact on their mood,” while four in 10 said they felt helpless to change the course of events.

In a recent essay for Nieman Labs, editor Joshua Benton explored this dynamic further, suggesting that lack of trust may be a lesser issue than the fact that the news is just depressing and anxiety-producing. He posits that maybe the news as delivered just isn’t competing well against “every other form of media, content, or diversion on your phone.”

The Reuters report did say that concern about misinformation and disinformation “remains high despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence.” But that concern is only one of a constellation of factors, along with clickbait and the rise of political polarization fueling partisan agendas online, that combine to undermine trust among readers.

That conclusion comports with work in the United States from Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University, who found in a study last year that people often avoided the news due to a combination of feeling distrustful of it and being overwhelmed by its negativity.

Her report, published in the International Journal of Communication, was based on conversations with 13 focus groups made up of news consumers across the country. It paints a picture of readers frustrated and weary with the “pervasive ambiguity” of information, navigating from site to site to verify something they had encountered online, often just giving up altogether.

Wenzel, reached by e-mail this week, said that when people in her study talked about “fake news” or trying to find “the truth,” they were often referring to the presence or absence of partisan narratives as opposed to misinformation.

Wenzel said that in more recent studies she’s done, trust was often connected with “how people felt their community was represented, and how they perceived the motives of journalists” — and not just if they thought something was factually accurate. So in these instances, she said, “traditional ideas of fact checking would be unlikely to influence people or woo them back to the news-using fold.”

Indeed, “fake news” is a politically charged term that doesn’t always mean misinformation, and is often used by people to characterize, simply, content that they don’t trust or agree with. But misinformers contribute to the erosion of trust by spreading falsehoods like doctored videos and disproven theories about the science of vaccinations or climate change.

What all this means for fact-checkers and other journalists is peril as well as opportunity. The peril is that people tune out due to all sorts of factors, misinformation being just one of them. The opportunity is in figuring out how to frame fact-checks and stories in ways that draw people in and in making them a compelling refuge from all the noise that might otherwise drive readers away.

. . .   technology

  • Opinion is divided about how concerned we should be about deepfakes. But given the amount being written about them, one thing is for sure: If they start appearing with more regularity, no one can say they weren’t warned. The Verge wrote about new research from London that shows how a single photo can be manipulated into a singing or talking video portrait. Among the (hilarious) examples is Russian religious mystic Grigori Rasputin singing Beyonce’s “Halo.”
  • The Washington Post, meanwhile, has launched a special guide to identifying manipulated videos, complete with a unique landing page that explains the terms and gives examples. And Fast Company had a piece about research into detecting deepfakes.
  • That slowed-down Pelosi video continues to generate headachesfor Facebook.

. . .  politics

  • The first debate among Democrats (10 of them) running for U.S. president began last night, prompting a flurry of fact-checking andwar-room efforts by social media companies. The Post concludedthat the candidates “rarely strayed over the factual line.” The debates will continue tonight with 10 more candidates.

  • On Poynter.org, Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN’s associate director,explored the question of why fact-checkers in the United States don’t collaborate on elections coverage the way they do in other countries.

  • The International Centre for Investigative Reporting has identified and analyzed instances of blatant misinformation and propaganda leading up to Nigeria’s general elections earlier this year.

. . .  the future of news

  • We’re assuming all those fact-checkers who attended Global Fact 6 last week in Cape Town are now back at their desks, freshly inspired and ready to tackle all the falsehoods the world has to offer. By all accounts the event was a success. Here are somelessons from the gathering. And here is a post from three big fact-checkers — Africa CheckChequeado and Full Fact — calling for an evolution in the craft.
  • Two University of Washington professors have developed a course in “calling BS,” The Washington Post reported. They say more than 70 colleges have contacted them about the curriculum.
  • As part of a New York Times series of op-eds about the future, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow imagines what life would be like if the United States regulated social media platforms, as some have demanded.

This week we’re going with a story by the joint venture of PolitiFact and Kaiser Health News about claims from President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden that they will cure cancer.

This isn’t a typical truth-o-meter type fact-check. It’s basically a story about why politicians’ claims that their administration will cure cancer are oversimplified, even though voters might appreciate the intention behind them. Research to cure cancer has long been a priority for Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, and whom then-President Barack Obama chose in 2016 to lead what they called a “cancer moonshot.

Cancer, however, is not just one disease but rather a collection of them, and they all call for different treatments, most of which need funding more than anything. Moreover, prevention is a key to cancer reduction. The Kaiser reporter, Shefali Luthra, captured these all factors in her clear-eyed explanation.

What we liked: This claim lent itself to the kind of nuance with which it was treated. Claims that  “we will cure cancer” don’t really call for a thumbs up or down. The science is complex because cancer is complex. These politicians know that, and many Americans probably know it, too, given their personal or family experiences. This piece can help people understand why.

Researchers in the U.K. have created an online simulation that they say can increase people’s resistance to “fake news.”

DW.com profiled Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, a former reporter who created “Lie Detectors,” a European news literacy program that has made hundreds of classroom visits across Belgium, Germany and Austria. The program is making plans to expand to other countries and languages.

The Washington Post chronicled the journey of cancer patients who sought help online and instead became ensnared in a “web of false, misleading and potentially dangerous cancer cures.”

Misinformation about U.S. travel and immigration policies continues to circulate overseas. The latest, that Malaysia was added to a visa waiver program, was debunked by Agence France-Press.

AFP, meanwhile, has joined with Facebook has in a fact-checking agreement to combat misinformation in Malaysia.

A new law in Canada aimed at stemming the spread of political misinformation has led Twitter to ban political advertising in advance of this fall’s elections. Here’s the Toronto Star’s take.

A doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo beat Ebola. Now he’s working to dispel misinformation about the virus, Nature reported.

Researchers at the London School of Economics have drawn a number of conclusions from studies they’ve done on social media use. There is a lot there. We, of course, zeroed in on the part about the “shelf-life” of fact-checking. See what you think.

Wired chronicled how misinformation and vaccine fears combined to spread measles in Brooklyn.

Yes, that spider really was eating that ‘possum, says Snopes. It was a very big spider and a very small ‘possum. Still, ewww.

That’s it for this week!

Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you or your reading it on our website, you can subscribe here.

Susan and Daniel

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