Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Notes from a top U.S. political science conference: It’s all about fake news

What a difference a year of political upheaval makes.

The Midwest Political Science Association since 1939 has focused on study and research of political science. Common themes for its annual conference in Chicago include voting patterns, electoral politics, politics in emerging democracies.

This year, it’s all about the era of fake news.

While Facebook rolled out a billboard campaign about fake news around Chicago (coincidence?), the number of sessions at MPSA’s 76th annual conference last week that mentioned “fake news,” “misinformation,” “partisan bias” and “Trump” were doubled over last year’s conference. And those sessions were among the most popular for the almost 4,500 registered attendees from around the world.

The conference pace is intense: four days of academic presentations in dozens of conference rooms, concurrently, for up to about 12 hours a day.  Here’s a quick look at just a few of the misinformation-related papers presented at the conference, both in progress and soon to be published.

“Can Fact-Checking Prevent Political Lying?” Chloe Lim of Stanford University looked at whether politicians care about poor ratings from fact-checking journalists and, if so, do they clarify their statements in later speeches? Using ClaimBuster scores, Lim looked at more than 400 statements from politicians. She found a 10.4 percent decrease in mentions of  false statements after the politician received a poor rating about the statement’s veracity. However, more research is needed on the reasons for that decrease, she said. For instance, it could simply have been “time to start talking about a new topic.”

“News Attention in a Mobile Era.” Does which device you use affect your ability to identify which news is fake and which is reliable? Kathleen Searles of Louisiana State University pointed out the problems with accessing information on a smart phone compared to a laptop: “Phones make you work harder” to search, type and read, she said. In an experiment conducted by Searles and three colleagues, 54 students were given stories to read in four formats: mobile, optimized mobile, desktop and “optimized desktop.”  By testing the students on the content and examining their pupil dilation (less dilation indicates more cognitive understanding), the scholars were able to determined that the “optimized desktop” version worked best in keeping the students’ attention and increasing the time spent reading the content. Read more here.

 

“Which Facts to Check? Investigating Selective Exposure to Fact-Checking Content.” While fact checks might reduce misperceptions and erroneous beliefs, the question is: Who’s reading fact-checks? Research conducted by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth, Andrew Guess of Princeton and Jason Reifler of Exeter actually monitored the computer activity of volunteers to find out. While fact-checking reaches “a substantial minority of Americans,” Guess noted, more work needs to be done to “get fact-checking out in front of people” more often — and, ideally, alongside the misleading statement or misinformation. Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute has written more about this research. (Note: The American Press Institute helped fund the study.)

“Correcting Fake News.”  Ethan Porter of George Washington University said his research — conducted along with David R. Kirby of the libertarian Cato Institute and Thomas Wood of Ohio State University — indicates that perhaps the prevalence of “crazy uncles” on Facebook is overstated. The scholars conducted their research by showing factual information to diverse groups of survey participants who held incorrect beliefs. The result: “For every fake story, the average liberal, moderate, and conservative responded to the factual correction by rejecting the fake news,” Porter said.  Future research, Porter said, should look at related questions, including what more can be done to effectively expose more people to factual information, and how “factual responsiveness” might differ by issue.

For more research and reports on fact-checking and misinformation, see Poynter’s continuously updated research database.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

The American Press Institute

Our mission

We help transform news organizations for an audience-centered future.

Our programs for publishers focus on four things:

  • 1. Understand your audience
  • 2. Get your audience to pay
  • 3. Transform your culture
  • 4. Do your best journalism
  • Find out more about API »

API solutions for publishers

What we can do for you

API offers a suite of original tools and services for solving the biggest challenges in news:

  • Decide what beats to cover and how
  • Identify and develop the skills you need
  • Assess and improve your culture
  • Drive more reader revenue
  • Drive loyalty through accountability journalism
  • Make analytics work for you
  • Contact us to find out how »