The article "Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News" appeared at the Scientific American website on February 6th. Its subheadline is "Researchers identify a major risk factor for pernicious effects of misinformation."
The article makes for interesting reading, whether you consider 'fake news' a classifier for broad swaths of the information landscape, or whether you consider 'fake news' to be particular items that are inaccurate, infused with partisan bias, subject to grotesque editorial demands, or otherwise not adequate to your needs.
Ghent University researchers Jonas De keersmaecker and Arne Roets first had over 400 subjects take a personality test. They then randomly assigned each subject to one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, the subjects read a biographical description of a young woman named Nathalie. The bio explained that Nathalie, a nurse at a local hospital, “was arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital; she has been stealing drugs for 2 years and selling them on the street in order to buy designer clothes.” The subjects then rated Nathalie on traits such as trustworthiness and sincerity, after which they took a test of cognitive ability. Finally, the subjects saw a message on their computer screen explicitly stating that the information about Nathalie stealing drugs and getting arrested was not true, and then rated her again on the same traits. The control condition was identical, except that subjects were not given the paragraph with the false information and rated Nathalie only once.
... you can guess what happened next.
Meanwhile, other research is shedding light on the mechanisms underlying the effects of misinformation. Repeating a false claim increases its believability, giving it an air of what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness.” Known as the illusion of truth effect, this phenomenon was first demonstrated in the laboratory by Hasher and her colleagues. On each of three days, subjects listened to plausible-sounding statements and rated each on whether they thought it was true. Half of the statements were in fact true, such as Australia is approximately equal in area to the continental United States, whereas the other half were false, such as Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office (it was William Henry Harrison). Some of the statements were repeated across days, whereas others were presented only once. The results showed that the average truth rating increased from day to day for the repeated statements, but remained constant for the non-repeated statements, indicating that subjects mistook familiarity for verity.
If you seek verity, verily you must verify ...
These studies add to scientific understanding of the fake news problem, which is providing a foundation for an evidenced-based approach to addressing the problem. A recommendation that follows from research on the illusion of truth effect is to serve as your own fact checker. If you are convinced that some claim is true, ask yourself why. Is it because you have credible evidence that the claim is true, or is it just because you’ve encountered the claim over and over? Also ask yourself if you know of any evidence that refutes the claim. (You just might be surprised to find that you do.) This type of recommendation could be promoted through public service announcements, which have been shown to be effective for things like getting people to litter less and recycle more. For its part, research on individual differences in susceptibility to fake news, such as the study by De keersmaecker and Roets, can help to identify people who are particularly important to reach through this type of informational campaign.
To that end, that of critical appraisal, one dear to the heart of all Objectivish people, the magazine has another useful (or familiar) set of verification rules of thumb:
-- this is presented at the site as an MP3 sound file, which I link to here:
Note on audio files: the code to insert an audio file is dead easy if you have a little knowledge of HTML. Any modern browser will return a little player like that above -- given the code format below. All you need to do is make sure the file to be played is MP3, the web standard.
<audio controls src="http://www.somesite.com/soundfile.mp3">
-- to insert similar audio file code on OL in your edit box, click on the "Source" button up under "Content" at the top of the edit box. This reveals the underlying HTML.