Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity

Details

Author(s):
  • Kevin Aslett
  • Zeve Sanderson
  • William Godel
  • Nathaniel Persily
  • Jonathan Nagler
  • Joshua A. Tucker
Publish Date:
December 20, 2023
Publication Title:
Nature
Format:
Journal Article Volume 625 Page(s) 548–556 (2024)
Citation(s):
  • Nathaniel Persily, Online Searches To Evaluate Misinformation Can Increase Its Perceived Veracity, Nature, Jan. 18, 2024, at 548.

Abstract

Considerable scholarly attention has been paid to understanding belief in online misinformation1,2, with a particular focus on social networks. However, the dominant role of search engines in the information environment remains underexplored, even though the use of online search to evaluate the veracity of information is a central component of media literacy interventions3,4,5. Although conventional wisdom suggests that searching online when evaluating misinformation would reduce belief in it, there is little empirical evidence to evaluate this claim. Here, across five experiments, we present consistent evidence that online search to evaluate the truthfulness of false news articles actually increases the probability of believing them. To shed light on this relationship, we combine survey data with digital trace data collected using a custom browser extension. We find that the search effect is concentrated among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information. Our results indicate that those who search online to evaluate misinformation risk falling into data voids, or informational spaces in which there is corroborating evidence from low-quality sources. We also find consistent evidence that searching online to evaluate news increases belief in true news from low-quality sources, but inconsistent evidence that it increases belief in true news from mainstream sources. Our findings highlight the need for media literacy programmes to ground their recommendations in empirically tested strategies and for search engines to invest in solutions to the challenges identified here.