Labeling the trustworthiness of news sites may convince the heaviest readers of unreliable content to shift what they consume, but new research finds it doesn't make much of a dent in most people's habits.
The study, led by NYU researchers, suggests that the average person's news diet may actually consist primarily of reliable sites. It also found that tools such as browser extension NewsGuard, which assigns icons of various colors according to sites' reliability, can only serve as one part of efforts to combat the effect of misinformation users do consume.
Top politicians and social scientists worldwide have zeroed in on online misinformation and "fake news" as drivers of increased partisanship and even violence, particularly as poor-quality content spreads rapidly on the web and through social media.
Nudging people toward higher-quality content, while also respecting free expression, has proven difficult. Fact-checking, broadly speaking, does appear to have some effect on people's beliefs or engagement, but the effects can be dependent on how the information is presented.
Meanwhile, purveyors of misinformation increasingly dismiss the efforts of fact-checkers and moves by platforms like Facebook and Twitter to limit engagement with shoddy claims as "bias" and "censorship." Many right-wing figures in particular frequently agitate for less moderation on social platforms — and they appear poised to get their wish as Elon Musk inches ever closer to acquiring Twitter.
In that environment, the researchers studied whether installing NewsGuard would get people to improve their journalistic diets and help them distinguish between fact and fiction when presented with statements about the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19.
Approximately two-thirds of study participants visited news sites that met NewsGuard's standards for reliability during the study period, but on average, the plug-in's icons didn't push general readers toward more reliable sources. The tool only shifted the 10% of users who consumed the most junk toward more reliable sites.
The research is being published in the journal Science Advances.