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Jan. 12, 2022, 2:30 p.m.

Misinformation makes up a teeny-tiny share of what most people read, and we might want to worry a little less about debunking it or trying to get people not to read it, argue the authors of a research note published Wednesday in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review. Instead, they say, “more efforts should be devoted to improving acceptance of reliable information, relative to fighting misinformation.”

That may be a lot easier said than done, given our extremely polarized media environment — it’s probably just easier to simply debunk a piece of fake news than it is to, I don’t know, broadly increase trust in reliable news — but here’s why Alberto Acerbi, Sacha Altay, and Hugo Mercier suggest prioritizing “supporting the acceptance of reliable misinformation”:

Simulations show that, given that most of the news consumed by the public comes from reliable sources, small increases in acceptance of reliable information (e.g., 1%) improve the global information score more than bringing acceptance of misinformation to 0%. This outcome is robust for a wide range of parameters and is also observed if acceptance of misinformation decreases trust in reliable information or increases the supply of misinformation (within plausible limits).

The methods that they suggest to increase the acceptance of reliable misinformation aren’t anything too revolutionary — think “transparency” boxes and the like. (The Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin has surveyed audiences on what they think of some of these types of efforts, if you’re interested.)

Several studies have shown that transparency boxes providing some information about the journalists who covered a news story and explaining why and how the story was covered enhances the perceived credibility of the journalist, the story, and the news organization (Chen et al., 2019; Curry & Stroud, 2017; Johnson & St. John III, 2021; Masullo et al., 2021). Second, credibility labels informing users about the reliability of news sources have been shown to increase the news diet quality of the 10% of people with the poorest news diet (Aslett et al., n.d.), but overall, such labels have produced inconsistent, and often null, results (Kim et al., 2019; Kim & Dennis, 2019). Third, in one experiment, fact-checks combined with opinions pieces defending journalism increased trust in the media and people’s intention to consume news in the future (Pingree et al., 2018). Fourth, in another experiment, fact-checking tips about how to verify information online increased people’s acceptance of scientific information from reliable news sources they were not familiar with (Panizza et al., 2021). Finally, a digital literacy intervention increased people’s acceptance of news from high-prominence mainstream sources but reduced acceptance of news from low-prominence mainstream sources (Guess, Lerner, et al., 2020).

You can read the research note here.

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