Search, fake news and politics – an international study

Fascinating research study suggests people aren't as susceptible to fake news as we might think.

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How are people using search, social media and other forms of media to get information about politics, politicians and political issues? Are we right to be worried about the impact search algorithms have on shaping political opinions or about inaccurate, false and politically biased information that distorts public opinion?

A study, conducted jointly by researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford) and the Quello Center (Michigan State University) questioned 14,000 internet users from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, the UK and the USA about how they used traditional and online media.

Search performance has the potential to support or undermine democratic processes.  Does search enable citizens to obtain better information about candidates and political issues or does search bias distort search results?  The research set out to go beyond anecdote.  The research report is rich with data but here are a few interesting findings:

The filter bubble issue is overstated

Internet users perceive search engines to be accurate and reliable sources of information – one of the first places they go for information about politics.  However, they consult on average 4.5 different media, including broadcast media, and encounter diverse information and opinion – often intentionally seeking out alternative views.  Multiple sources of information tend to counter any potential filter bubbles created by search algorithms.

The echo chamber issue is overstated

The researchers found that most internet users to not ‘cocoon’ themselves away from alternative views. Almost half (48%) of all users across the seven nations say they ‘often’ learn something new when using search. Internet users are exposed to diverse viewpoints both online and offline.  36% of respondents say read news they disagree with either very often or often. 43% say they do this at least sometimes.  Fewer than 20% of respondents say they have unfriended or blocked someone for posting content they disagree with. 

We shouldn’t be too concerned about fake news

Internet users are generally sceptical of information across all media and know how to check the accuracy and validity of information found through search, on social media, or on the Internet in general. Over 50 percent of respondents claim they often or very often use search to check facts. The findings indicate that misinformation can fool some search engine users some of the time, but that most users (over 80%) are sufficiently sceptical of information to use search to check facts.

Of critical importance to information professionals:

“Nevertheless, fact checking is limited by skills in the use of search. Many users could benefit from support and training in the use of search.”

The full study Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States (200+ pages) can be downloaded here.