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Sept. 22, 2021, 2:18 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK:   ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   September 22, 2021

Simply conducting a Google search to verify if a given statement about ethnic minorities in Japan is true or not could help correct disinformation, a new study published Wednesday in PLoS One found. To understand some of the consequences of searching online for information, researchers at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Media and Communication conducted two experiments about misinformation about ethnic minorities in Japan.

Previous studies about online search have yielded mixed conclusions about its benefits. Some have shown that online search can lead to finding factual information, while others note that isn’t always the case because of confirmation bias on the part of the person searching for information and algorithmic bias built into search engines.

In the first experiment, researchers asked 1,032 Japanese adults between ages 20 and 59 to figure out if the false statement “more than 20% of those who are on welfare are Zainichi Koreans” was true or false using search engines. (Zainichi Koreans are an ethnic minority in Japan who have faced decades of racism and discrimination in the country.) The majority of participants either used Google or Yahoo Japan to arrive at the answer.

A control group was asked to search about a false statement that “less than 10% of those who shopped online in 2012 encountered some trouble in their transactions.” The control and treatment groups were each given 10 minutes to search until they were confident that the statement was objectively true or false. All participants were also scored on a “feeling thermometer” about South Korea as a country, to gauge whether they were predisposed to harbor discriminatory feelings about Zainichi Koreans. A lower score indicated they were more likely to believe falsehoods about this group of people.

This experiment found that online search does help reduce the likelihood of believing false information among people who are predisposed to believe misinformation. Thirty-seven percent of the control group believed the statement they were presented with to be true even after using a search engine, while only 25% of the treatment group believed their statement to be true after searching online. At the same time, a quarter of those in the treatment group were still likely to believe misinformation about Zainichi Koreans despite being presented with factual information contrary to their beliefs during online searches.

The second study used the same statements as the first one, but this time, the treatment group was split into three subgroups: the original treatment group, the directional goal group (where people are asked to arrive at a specific conclusion, regardless of accuracy), and the accuracy goal group (where people are asked to arrive at the most correct conclusion, regardless of their beliefs).

The original treatment group and the control group were given the exact same directions from the first study, while the directional goal group was asked to search for information that was “as agreeable as possible” to the statements while the accuracy goal group was asked to “search for information that is as objectively accurate as possible, regardless of your own opinion.”

The results from the second study show that “those who were predisposed to believe the misinformation corrected their misbelief, even when they were instructed to search for information that was agreeable to their prior opinion.” Overall, the researchers concluded that online search does help reduce misbelief of false information regardless of the searcher’s goals.

“Results of the two experiments using widely shared, prejudiced misinformation about an ethnic minority in Japan indicated that (a) online search reduces on average the likelihood of believing the misinformation, (b) the magnitude of the effect is larger among those who are predisposed to believe the misinformation, (c) cognitive correction is observed whether searchers are motivated to achieve a directional goal or an accuracy goal, and (d) online search deteriorates affective feeling toward the target groups of the misinformation.”

Taken together, the two studies point to four main conclusions.

— On average, online search can reduce the likelihood of believing the misinformation.
— “The magnitude of the effect is larger among those who are predisposed to believe the misinformation.”
— A change in beliefs was observed whether searchers were more motivated to be accurate or more motivated to confirm their existing beliefs.
— Online search reduced the negative beliefs toward the target groups of the misinformation.

The researchers behind the new study noted that while belief in misinformation after searching online was reduced in their own study, it’s unclear if that would be the case in others and that more work — especially in different contexts — would need to be done to verify if online searches can be a viable tool for combatting misinformation.

Find the full report here.

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