In the wake of the flood of misinformation sinking America, many organizations have turned to fact-checking. Many newsrooms set up dedicated fact-checking groups, and some independent organizations were formed to provide the service. We get live fact-checking of political debates, and Facebook will now tag content it considers misinformation and with a link to a fact-check.
Obviously, given how many people still fear COVID-19 vaccines, there are limits to how much fact-checking can accomplish. But can it be effective outside of the highly heated misinformation climate in America? A new study tests the efficacy of fact-checking in a set of countries that are geographically and culturally diverse, and finds that fact-checking is generally more helpful in shaping public understanding than misinformation. is effective.
Checking with different countries
The two researchers behind the new work, Ethan Porter and Thomas Wood, identified three countries that fall outside the general group of wealthy, industrialized countries where most population surveys take place. These were Argentina, Nigeria and South Africa. As a little control for specific surveys, they also ran their study in the UK. All four of these countries have professional fact-checking organizations that assist with the work and were able to recruit 2,000 citizens to study.
The design of the experiment was simple. The researchers created a set of misinformation. Two items in the set (on climate change and pandemics) were globally relevant. But they also developed items that suit the misinformation environment in each country. These include examples such as the percentage of South Africa’s wages, the public debt-to-GDP ratio in Argentina, or the level of youth unemployment in Nigeria.
Participants were randomly assigned one of three conditions. The control group only received an unrelated piece of misinformation. Another group received misinformation that is widely circulated in their country as a simple, factual statement. The third group received false information as well as a more detailed fact-check.
Afterwards, participants were asked to rate their belief in misinformation on a five-point scale, from thinking strongly that it is true that it is false. In all countries except Nigeria, the same participants were contacted two weeks later to see if the fact-check stuck. They were also asked to answer a 10-question survey that placed people on the conservative of the liberal ideological spectrum.
All told, it allowed researchers to know whether fact-checking worked and whether ideological tendencies influenced its effectiveness.
it works, within limits
Overall, on the researchers’ five-point scale, misinformation was barely recorded. This is not too surprising, as it was presented only as a figure. In the real world, most misinformation is packaged in cultural and ideological cues that bolster its effectiveness. Nevertheless, fact-checking proved highly effective in various countries, erasing the impact of misinformation and then increasing the acceptance of accurate information by a half-point on a five-point scale.
However, its effectiveness varies greatly depending on the subject. For example, it was highly effective in clearing misconceptions about total malaria deaths in Nigeria, but did little in ensuring that Argentines knew their public debt-to-GDP ratio. But every single fact-check was effective to some extent. And, when the investigation was conducted two weeks later, nine of the 15 fact-checked people were caught.
Ideology played a role everywhere, eroding the effectiveness of fact-checking on certain issues, such as how much money Boris Johnson has promised to fund education in the UK. But these examples averaged out, and fact-checking overall improved the accuracy of people’s beliefs, regardless of where they were on the ideological spectrum.
Looking at the differences in economy, culture and politics in these countries, Porter and Wood concluded that fact-checking is generally effective. It does not mean that it will work on all or will be equally effective for all subjects. But at least, on some level, people are willing to accept the fact-checking details.
That said, the researchers view their work mostly as a sign that this is something that is worth studying in different countries. They acknowledge that their work had some limitations, such as its simple presentation of misinformation to participants. It also does not take into account the social factors that change the effectiveness of fact-checking on various issues. For example, they note that studies in the US have identified demographic groups and cognitive habits that make people more vulnerable to misinformation and therefore potentially more resistant to fact-checking. These kinds of things would be important to study in other cultures.
But of course, before doing those studies, it’s important that we know there’s something out there to study. And this work suggests that there is.
PNAS, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2104235118 (About DOI).