The British scientific journal Nature published a remarkable study last month that goes a long way toward explaining why so many people believe things that aren’t true. The implications are terrifying.
The article, published on Dec. 20, is titled “Online Searches to Evaluate Misinformation Can Increase Its Perceived Veracity.” When people go online — most often to Google — to find out if something is true or not, more often than not they end up more convinced of lies.
The study was conducted by scholars at the University of Central Florida, N.Y.U., and Stanford. They start their article by observing that social media networks are usually blamed for the spread of misinformation. “Although conventional wisdom suggests that searching online when evaluating misinformation would reduce belief in it,” they wrote, “there is little empirical evidence to evaluate this claim.” Instead, they conclude that falsehoods found there are easily reinforced on trusty Google.
They carried out five separate experiments with a total of more than 14,000 randomly selected subjects who were asked to judge the truthfulness of news articles, some of which were accurate and others false. (The researchers employed professional fact-checkers to verify which were which.) Some of the subjects — the “treatment” groups — were asked to do online research to test their opinions of the articles. Others, in control groups, were not asked to do any research.
The studies were conducted mostly in 2020 and 2021, the first years of the pandemic. One of the bogus news articles used in the research had this headline: “U.S. Faces Engineered Famine as Covid Lockdowns and Vax Mandates Could Lead to Widespread Hunger, Unrest This Winter.”
The results of the studies were stunningly consistent. In each one, a significant percentage of the participants — between 17 and 20 percent — were more likely to believe a false or misleading article after doing online research.
One strand of the research suggests an explanation for this result: too much of what’s out there online is crap. (The scholars call it “low-quality” information.) And most people are poorly schooled in how to do searches effectively and how to judge the reliability of sources.
The study calls into question the way that “media literacy” is taught.
The authors note that the pushers of toxic conspiracy theories, like QAnon, recommend “that people ‘do the research’ themselves, which seems like a counter-intuitive strategy for a conspiracy-theory-oriented movement. However, our findings suggest that the strategy of pushing people to verify low-quality information online might paradoxically be even more effective at misinforming them.”
Reading the Nature article took me back to a recent conversation with Wellfleet Select Board member Tim Sayre, who refused to cite any evidence for his belief that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a corrupt agency of evil that should be purged from the community. When I pressed him for answers, all he would say was “Have you done the research?”