Nieman Foundation at Harvard
The Copa, Euro, and Wimbledon finals collide on July 14. Here’s how The Athletic is preparing for its “biggest day ever.”
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Jan. 11, 2018, 9 p.m.
Audience & Social

Maybe the science and psychology of “post-truth” can’t explain this moment at all

Plus: A French law against fake news during elections; Facebook meets with its fact-checkers; fake news jeans.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“Can fake news be corrected?” A short paper from George Washington University’s Ethan Porter and Ohio State University’s Thomas Wood looks at whether people become less convinced by fake news after they see a correction of it. In their study of nearly 3,000 subjects on Mechanical Turk, they found that the corrections were effective:

We used six fake news examples, randomly exposing each subject to two examples. For each fake news example, subjects randomly saw either the fake news story alone, or the story and a correction. All subjects were asked to agree with the position advanced by the fake news story.

Both the fake news examples and corrections came from the real world. We utilized a wide range of sources for stories and corrections. Some came from traditional media, while others emanated from Internet message boards. For one of the fake stories, we varied the media type, showing subjects a video. For another fake story, we presented subjects with one of two real-world corrections. The full text of each fake story and correction appear in the appendix.

As the top row of Figure 1 shows, on every issue, corrected subjects on average became significantly less convinced by the fake news story…

To be sure, there was some evidence of differential response to corrections by ideology. Furthermore, uncorrected subjects were credulous of the claims made by the fake stories. Yet, for no issue was a correction met with factual backfire.

“Factual backfire” was the topic of a much-cited 2010 paper, “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,” by Brendan Nyhan (now at Dartmouth) and Jason Reifler (now at the University of Exeter). In that paper, they found that “corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

That paper “went viral in the media..[and] soon became the go-to explanation for partisan recalcitrance,” Daniel Engber writes in a recent feature article for Slate, “LOL Something Matters.” But it hasn’t always been easy to recreate the “factual backfire” finding in follow-up studies. From Engber’s piece:

While some colleagues have been reluctant to believe that backfire effects might be rare or nonexistent, there are some notable exceptions. Nyhan and Reifler, in particular, were open to the news that their original work on the subject had failed to replicate. They ended up working with Wood and Porter on a collaborative research project, which came out last summer, and again found no sign of backfire from correcting misinformation. (Wood describes them as “the heroes of this story.”) Meanwhile, Nyhan and Reifler have found some better evidence of the effect, or something like it, in other settings. And another pair of scholars, Brian Schaffner and Cameron Roche, showed something that looks a bit like backfire in a recent, very large study of how Republicans and Democrats responded to a promising monthly jobs report in 2012. But when Nyhan looks at all the evidence together, he concedes that both the prevalence and magnitude of backfire effects could have been overstated and that it will take careful work to figure out exactly when and how they come in play.

Porter and Wood’s new paper, “The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of Political Behavior.

Also, check out these two Twitter threads on Engber’s story. And try not to let your brain explode, we haven’t even gotten to the fake news jeans yet.

A French law against fake news. France will introduce a law fighting online misinformation by the end of 2018. The law would “would grant judges emergency powers to remove or block certain content deemed to be ‘fake’ during sensitive election periods,” reports James McAuley for The Washington Post. “It would also require greater transparency for sponsored content and permit France’s media watchdog, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, to combat ‘any attempt at destabilization’ by foreign-financed media organizations.” Politico EU has arguments for and against the French law.

A somewhat similar bill, the “NetzDG” law, went into effect in Germany on January 1. It requires large social networks to take down “hate speech, fake news and illegal material” quickly, usually within 24 hours, or face fines. Critics fear that it will harm free speech, pointing to the suspension of the Twitter accounts of a German satirical magazine and of a German comedian, for instance.

Next up: Brazil? This is a “trend in which governments are now exploiting concerns over ‘fake news’ to justify state control over the internet,” Glenn Greenwald fears. (A French minister insisted to Reuters that “judges, not the government, will be in charge of enforcing” the proposed legislation. “The judge will be there and he will judge.”

Speaking of Brazil, which has elections this year: “Brazil has real challenges; it’s a very polarized landscape and closed messaging apps will be the biggest concern,” First Draft’s Claire Wardle told Bloomberg’s David Biller. First Draft is looking to set up a collaborative fact-checking initiative in Brazil, similar to the CrossCheck project it ran in France, this spring.

Can’t wait to hear how the meeting goes! Facebook will meet with its fact-checking partners next month to “discuss, in part, what information could finally be shared” with them on about how fake news spreads on the platform and how they can work more effectively, reports Jason Schwartz for Politico. The meeting will come about a year after the fact-checking partnerships originally launched as part of the Facebook Journalism Project (an initiative that itself has received “mixed reviews”).

A guide for your study of “fakeness.” Public Data Lab in collaboration with First Draft released “A Field Guide to ‘Fake News’ and Other Information Disorders,” which aims to help readers learn more about how fake news spreads by “suggesting different ways in which it can be empirically studied, mapped and investigated online.” These are essentially exercises that you can do from your computer — for instance, “examine the themes exploited in fake news stories and identify the events which they editorialize.” Too much of the reporting on this subject is not based on the data,” First Draft’s Wardle told Poynter. “While not everyone is a computational journalist, the recipes outlined in this guide mean that most people can run some basic analysis of the online disinformation networks they are writing about.”

Fake news jeans. First there was fake news beer and now there are fake news jeans. Or were, until they sold out at British retailer Topshop. “We thought we’d immortalize this of-the-moment phrase on a pair of our jeans,” Mo Riach, Topshop’s head of design, told The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman. I mean if they were really trying to be of the moment it should be either “‘fake news’”, in quotes, or “satire/hoax/ misinformation/disinformation,” but maybe next year. Also, there are some negative views about these jeans.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Jan. 11, 2018, 9 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
PART OF A SERIES     Real News About Fake News
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
The Copa, Euro, and Wimbledon finals collide on July 14. Here’s how The Athletic is preparing for its “biggest day ever.”
The Athletic intends to use its live coverage as a “shop window,” giving new readers a taste of what they might get if they subscribed.
Making sense of science: Using LLMs to help reporters understand complex research
Can AI models save reporters time in figuring out an unfamiliar field’s jargon?
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?