Navigating Fake News: How Americans Should Deal With Misinformation Online

Faculty experts discuss research, causes and solutions during media briefing

Part of the From Health Care to Child Care, the Impact of COVID-19 Series

There’s an old fact-checking adage in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

It’s good advice that, given the avalanche of political misinformation and outright falsehoods available on the internet, is absolutely critical now, several Duke experts in communication, policy and technology said Wednesday.

But being a savvy, clear-eyed news consumer these days isn’t easy, the scholars said during a briefing for reporters.

Here are excerpts:

ON THE SCALE OF DIGITAL MISINFORMATION

Bill Adair, journalism professor

“The scale is so huge. … We just see in every corner of the world, in every corner of our lives, there is just so much misinformation. It pops up in such insidious ways. It’s really scary.”

“It’s big, it’s sprawling, it’s hard to get a handle on. It’s frightening what it can do to our lives.”

 

ON FAKE NEWS SITES FILLING VOIDS LEFT BY A LOSS OF LOCAL NEWS

Phil Napoli, public policy professor

“As local news outlets contract, it creates opportunities for outlets that often have the appearance of traditional local news outlets, to move in and sow misinformation in a variety of ways.”

“According to some recent research, the number of these types of sites, that are either hyper-partisan or in some cases blatant misinformation sites, has actually doubled in the past six months or so. It’s an active process that’s ongoing.”

“As far as what to do about it, we need to recognize that in this point in time we’ve learned all we need to know about whether the traditional commercial model of local journalism is viable anymore. We need to have real conversations about alternative funding models.”

 

ON THE ROLE SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS PLAY IN PREVENTING MISINFORMATION

Matthew Perault, public policy and technology expert

“There a couple potential upsides. You might limit the aggregate amount of misinformation. You might reduce the impact of misinformation on particularly vulnerable communities including communities of color.”

“If you had social media platforms playing a more aggressive role, you might get more consistency in the application of their policies.”

“(But) Social media was not designed to be a publisher … social media platforms are oriented around user-generated content. They are designed to enable many different people to speak and many diverse perspectives.”

“It would also be odd at a time when there’s increasing focus on the power of tech companies to ask them to play a more aggressive role in moderating speech on their platforms.”

“Social media platforms deal with content at scale. That means content-moderation policies are more of a hatchet than a scalpel.”

“There are a variety of unintended consequences and I think it’s possible it could restrict speech in problematic ways.”

“We’re just in a moment of incredibly fractured politics and it’s not clear to me that social media platforms can take more aggressive approaches on content without significantly alienating one side of the aisle or the other.”

 

ON WHETHER MISINFORMATION IS ACTUALLY INFLUENTIAL

Sunshine Hillygus, political scientist

“The thing I would emphasize is that widespread existence is not the same as widespread impact on the public.”

“While it’s very popular to see a headline in the media about how dumb the American public is because they believe in something … a lot of times the evidence backing up these beliefs is as much the fault of the pollster as it is the public.”

“We want to be very careful in making sense of the polling data about beliefs. One of my favorite adages … is you don’t want to overestimate the knowledge of the public, but you also don’t want to underestimate their intelligence.”

“I am often times more concerned about media coverage of misinformation than about the misinformation itself.”

“There’s a lot of coverage, for instance, of examples of when someone is not wearing a mask and confronts somebody in a store. But we’re seeing overwhelming support for the use of masks on both sides of the aisle. … So I think we want to not normalize misinformation.”

 

ON FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTION FOR MISINFORMATION

Phil Napoli

“Suddenly it’s ironically part of why we are less informed rather than more informed. Falsity is very, very strongly protected by the First Amendment. It really does create a situation where, even if we could imagine a scenario or approach where some sort of governmental regulatory framework for addressing this falsity could be put together, it really would probably collapse under a First Amendment challenge.”

Matt Perault

“We have a strong First Amendment/free speech tradition in this country. And diverse speech including speech that might be false or abhorrent is supposed to be permitted in the discourse. And again I think at a time when there’s a concern about the power of tech platforms, it would be odd to encourage them to be more aggressive in removing speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”

 

ON HOW MISINFORMATION FEEDS POLARIZATION

Sunshine Hillygus

“There’s no doubt that misinformation is becoming part of the warfare of political polarization. Often times though it is about the one side talking about how dumb the other side is because they believe in some type of misinformation.”

“There is no doubt we are polarized today. When we think about the role of misinformation in that, unfortunately we often focus too much on, in media coverage, on how we are different and less on similarities.”

 

ON MISINFORMATION DRIVING INTERNET CLICKS

Bill Adair

“There’s always the tendency to pick the extremes. As journalists we focus on the fight over the mask rather than 97 percent of people who are complying with masks. It’s not news when dog bites man. It’s news when the man bites the dog. But I think we have to put things into perspective for people and make sure they understand when we’re talking about the outliers. What has changed in the digital age is that the outliers, the fringe, has a megaphone it never had before.”

“In the analog age, the small percentage of people who had conspiracy beliefs couldn’t get together very easily. The digital age has made it much easier for them to get together, and made it much easier for media organizations to report on that and suggest it’s a bigger thing than it is.”

“… Even if we report on the fringe, we need to make sure it’s put into perspective. Often, that may be to not report on the fringe.”

 

ON SPOTTING AND COMBATTING PHONY NEWS WEBSITES

Phil Napoli

“What we’re seeing is a return to what journalism looked like 100 years ago when in fact so many of the newspapers that served the community were affiliated with political parties. That’s what we’re seeing a lot more of now, these outlets sprout up. The difference this time around is the exact nature of the political operative or the PAC that is funding this news outlet is very hard to determine.”

“Today’s news consumer has to do a lot more detective work in order to assure one’s self you’re being informed by legitimate news and information sources.”

Matt Perault

“Some platforms are experimenting with adding context … about the source of information, which would in theory enable people to make their own decisions about whether to give it much weight.”

“That’s a productive area to explore because it permits the content to exist … and lets the consumer make their own decision about the weight they want to place on it.”

 

ON CHALLENGES FACING FACT-CHECKERS

Bill Adair

“I think the biggest thing we can do in the journalism community is be transparent about our work and show how we reach out conclusions. But also to make sure there is absolute nonpartisanship by the fact-checkers. That’s also something all the fact-checkers that are part of the international fact checking network have agreed to, all around the world.”

“It’s a problem of refereeing and it’s a problem of passion for your team. I think we’re always going to have that because of passions for our team.”

 

ON WHETHER THE US IS MORE POLARIZED NOW

Sunshine Hillygus

“By every metric you can look at, we are more polarized than we were in the mid-20th century. But partly it’s a matter of where we look. When we look at the politicians and the parties, the extent of polarization is massive and clear.”

“But when we look at peoples’ beliefs in the issues, there is much less polarization than is often characterized. The public as a whole still has some issue preferences that there is considerable common ground. So it’s one of the things that is so important for us to remember in talking about polarization … why is it that our political system isn’t adequately representing the views of the American public where there is common agreement? To me that tends to be one of the biggest questions we are overlooking when we are focusing on our differences.”

 

ON WHETHER WE’RE MORE OR LESS INFORMED NOW

Sunshine Hillygus

“In terms of public opinion assessment, there has not really been as much of a change as you might expect. When you’re testing the civics knowledge of high school students you’ll see some decline. By and large, I go back to the point that the American public doesn’t necessarily know a lot in terms of facts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re irrational in their political decision-making or unable to become more knowledgeable about an issue when it becomes important.”

“COVID is one of those examples. … This was also an instance of pretty profound public learning about the pandemic where people didn’t have a great body of knowledge and over time that has increased. Unfortunately what we might see is that it becomes polarized as the issue itself becomes polarized.”

Bill Adair

“People are overwhelmed with all this information. That’s why email newsletters are still so popular. People want us to make sense of the world for them and to distill things for them. In that sense, email newsletters are the new front page. We’re just distilling stuff and telling people what’s important.”

“There’s more information than ever but people still want journalists to make sense of it for them. They still want us to hold power accountable. They just want to make sure we’re not biased in doing it.”

 

ON DAMAGE DONE BY PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ‘FAKE NEWS’ CLAIMS

Bill Adair

“That has had a really detrimental effect on the standing of objective news organizations. We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do to rebuild the credibility of the media because of those attacks. And I don’t think those attacks are warranted at all. Back in 2017 and 2018 when these attacks were going on, I think media companies made a mistake by not pushing back. I think they felt they could just take these attacks and they were partisan. But they weren’t partisan; they had to do with the credibility of news organizations. And it’s really had a corrosive effect on their standing, especially in the eyes of many people on the right. It’s done tremendous harm that is going to take a long time to heal.”

 

Faculty Participants

Bill Adair
Bill Adair is a professor of the practice of journalism and public policy and the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He is also the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact.

Sunshine Hillygus
Sunshine Hillygus is a professor of political science who studies American political behavior, campaigns and elections, survey methods, public opinion and information technology and politics.

Phil Napoli
Phil Napoli is a professor of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy and a faculty member at the DeWitt Wallace Center, where he researches new ideas for social media regulation, local news deserts and the contraction of news media.

Matthew Perault
Matthew Perault is an associate professor of the practice at the Duke Initiative for Science & Society, where he is also director of the Center on Science & Technology Policy. Before coming to Duke, Perault was a director of public policy at Facebook.
 

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A list of experts on media, politics and other issues related to the 2020 election is available here.