University of Exeter: People who falsely believe they are able to identify false news are more likely to fall victim to it, study shows

Overconfidence in news judgment is associated with false news susceptibility, according to the research. The mismatch between perceived ability to spot false stories and people’s actual abilities may play an important and previously unrecognized role in the spread of false information online.

Lack of skill in spotting fake information is known to drive engagement with false news, and people who are worse at discerning between legitimate and false news are worse at doing so in their browsing habits. The study shows people’s inflated perceptions of their ability to distinguish between true and fake information is associated with engaging with misinformation.

The research suggests overconfident individuals are more likely to visit untrustworthy websites, to fail to successfully distinguish between true and false claims about current events in survey questions; and to report greater willingness to like or share false content on social media, especially when about political views they agree with.

Around 90 percent of those who took part in the study reported they thought their ability to discern false and legitimate news headlines was above average. However three in four individuals overestimated their ability to distinguish between legitimate and false news headlines. Respondents placed themselves 22 percentiles higher than their score warranted, on average. About 20 percent of respondents rated themselves 50 or more percentiles higher than their score warranted.

The study, published in Proceedings of National Academics of Sciences, was carried out by Ben Lyons, from the University of Utah, Jacob M. Montgomery, from Washington University in St Louis, Andrew M. Guess from Princeton University, Brendan Nyhan from Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler from the University of Exeter.

They used two large nationally representative surveys with a total of 8,285 respondents in the USA. Individuals were asked to evaluate the accuracy of a series of Facebook headlines and then rate their own abilities to discern false news content. Lyons used these two measures to assess overconfidence among respondents and how it is related to beliefs and behaviors.

Professor Lyons said: “Though Americans believe confusion caused by false news is extensive, relatively few indicate having seen or shared it.

“If people incorrectly see themselves as highly skilled at identifying false news, they may unwittingly be more likely to consume, believe and share it, especially if it conforms to their worldview.

“Our results paint a worrying picture. Many people are simply unaware of their own vulnerability to misinformation.

“Using data measuring respondents’ online behavior, we show that those who overrate their ability more frequently visit websites known to spread false or misleading news. These overconfident respondents are also less able to distinguish between true and false claims about current events and report higher willingness to share false content, especially when it aligns with their political leanings.”

Professor Reifler said: “We found those who are least equipped to identify false news content are also the least aware of their own limitations and, therefore, more susceptible to believing it and spreading it further.”

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