Nieman Foundation at Harvard
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
March 22, 2019, 8:48 a.m.
Audience & Social

The “backfire effect” is mostly a myth, a broad look at the research suggests

Plus: Instagram is fertile ground for conspiracy theories, Apple gives to media literacy, and a terror attack comes with its own media strategy.

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.

“The backfire effect is in fact rare, not the norm.” Does fact-checking really make things worse? The U.K.’s independent fact-checking organization Full Fact looked at research into the so-called “backfire effect,” the idea (popular in the media) that “when a claim aligns with someone’s ideological beliefs, telling them that it’s wrong will actually make them believe it even more strongly.”

Full Fact research manager Amy Sippett reviewed seven studies that have explored the backfire effect and found that “cases where backfire effects were found tended to be particularly contentious topics, or where the factual claim being asked about was ambiguous.” The studies where a backfire effect was not found also tended to be larger than the studies where it was found. Full Fact cautions that most of the research on the backfire effect has been done in the U.S., and “we still need more evidence to understand how fact-checking content can be most effective.”

“Instagram can serve as an entry point into the internet’s darkest corners.” Taylor Lorenz, the queen of Instagram reporting, reports on how even the Internet’s well-lit corners contain plenty of darkness:

Instagram is teeming with…conspiracy theories, viral misinformation, and extremist memes, all daisy-chained together via a network of accounts with incredible algorithmic reach and millions of collective followers — many of whom, like Alex [a high school senior who “runs his own Gen Z–focused QAnon Instagram account”], are very young. These accounts intersperse TikTok videos and nostalgia memes with anti-vaccination rhetoric, conspiracy theories about George Soros and the Clinton family, and jokes about killing women, Jews, Muslims, and liberals.

Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, did research in 2017 showing how Instagram was a major source of Russian propaganda. But he told Lorenz “he would be unable to carry out similar research today due to the [Instagram’s 2018] API restrictions. ‘The ability for me to do a network analysis or look at how accounts are connected has basically gone away,’ he says.”

Apple is providing funding for media literacy. Ahead of the Monday event where it is expected to announce a streaming TV product and an Apple News premium tier, Apple this week announced that it’s providing funding to three media literacy organizations: The News Literacy Project and Common Sense in the U.S., and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori in Italy. “Apple’s investment in our work represents the largest corporate contribution in our history,” wrote Alan Miller, founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, but the actual funding amounts weren’t disclosed. Apple CEO Tim Cook also joined Osservatorio’s international board.

“The eerie absence of viral fakes.” If last week’s New Zealand mosque attacks had followed what has become the standard pattern for terror attacks, it would have been followed by a swarm of faked information — years-old images resurfaced as new, fraudulent social media accounts, and imaginary suspects. But not so much this time, as noted by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko, perhaps because the killer’s own media strategy took up all the crime’s oxygen:

Friday’s attack at two mosques in New Zealand was committed by a shooter who deployed a social media strategy to go with his actions. He live-streamed on Facebook, he posted on Twitter about his plans, and he released a manifesto boobytrapped with references to online subcultures, memes, and influencers designed to trigger backlash — and even more coverage. Just as he stockpiled ammunition and guns, he made sure his phone was charged, his GoPro was broadcasting live, and his trail of breadcrumbs in the form of social media accounts were there to be found…

We don’t see high-profile fakes of the suspect or the victim, and even the reliably vocal conspiracy theorists aren’t touting the usual “this shooting was staged by the government” fake. The absence of a disinformation onslaught stands out. The reason seems to be that the shooter’s media plan was so comprehensive, and his content spread so quickly, that there was little room for fakes to fill the void. We knew who he was immediately because he designed it that way. We had his name, his manifesto, his sickening live-stream as immediate evidence and attribution.

…right now, in the first hours, what we see is a killer who created the equivalent of a multiplatform content strategy to maximize his reach, push his message, and force the media and social platforms to navigate a minefield of coded messages aimed at helping push his agenda even after he was captured or killed. By eliminating the usual vacuum of disinformation, he created a situation where one of the most important jobs of journalists and others is to think about how not to give him the platform he so meticulously planned for.

But note that even the killer’s media plan couldn’t stop all irresponsible misinformation:

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     March 22, 2019, 8:48 a.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.
What’s in a successful succession? Nonprofit news leaders on handing the reins to the next guard
“Any organization that is dependent on having a founder around is inherently unsustainable.”
Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
Some findings from RISJ’s 2024 Digital News Report.
The strange history of white journalists trying to “become” Black
“To believe that the richness of Black identity can be understood through a temporary costume trivializes the lifelong trauma of racism. It turns the complexity of Black life into a stunt.”