Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped: as appeared in The Conversation

Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped

File 20170504 4929 1sx8gvi
Don’t panic: An international survey finds concerns about fake news are overblown.
studiostoks/shutterstock.com

William H. Dutton, Michigan State University

In the early years of the internet, it was revolutionary to have a world of information just a click away from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Many hoped this inherently democratic technology could lead to better-informed citizens more easily participating in debate, elections and public discourse.

Today, though, many observers are concerned that search algorithms and social media are undermining the quality of online information people see. They worry that bad information may be weakening democracy in the digital age.

The problems include online services conveying fake news, splitting users into “filter bubbles” of like-minded people and enabling users to unwittingly lock themselves up in virtual echo chambers that reinforce their own biases.

These concerns are much discussed, but have not yet been thoroughly studied. What research does exist has typically been limited to a single platform, such Twitter or Facebook. Our study of search and politics in seven nations – which surveyed the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain in January 2017 – found these concerns to be overstated, if not wrong. In fact, many internet users trust search to help them find the best information, check other sources and discover new information in ways that can burst filter bubbles and open echo chambers.

Surveying internet users

We sought to learn directly from people about how they used search engines, social media and other sources of information about politics. Through funding from Google, we conducted an online survey of more than 14,000 internet users in seven nations.

We found that the fears surrounding search algorithms and social media are not irrelevant – there are problems for some users some of the time. However, they are exaggerated, creating unwarranted fears that could lead to inappropriate responses by users, regulators and policymakers.

The importance of searching

The survey findings demonstrate the importance of search results over other ways to get information. When people are looking for information, they very often search the internet. Nearly two-thirds of users across our seven nations said they use a search engine to look for news online at least once a day. They view search results as equally accurate and reliable as other key sources, like television news.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/pfmZV/1/

In line with that general finding, a search engine is the first place internet users go online for information about politics. Moreover, those internet users who are very interested in politics, and who participate in political activities online, are the most likely to use a search engine like Bing or Google to find information online about politics.

But crucially, those same users engaged in search are also very likely to get information about politics on other media, exposing themselves to diverse sources of information, which makes them more likely to encounter diverse viewpoints. Further, we found that people who are interested and involved in politics online are more likely to double-check questionable information they find on the internet and social media, including by searching online for additional sources in ways that will pop filter bubbles and break out of echo chambers.

Internet-savvy or not?

It’s not just politically interested people who have these helpful search habits: People who use the internet more often and have more practice searching online do so as well.

That leaves the least politically interested people and the least skilled internet users as most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online. These individuals could benefit from support and training in digital literacy.

However, for most people, internet searches are critical for checking the reliability and validity of information they come across, whether online, on social media, on traditional media or in everyday conversation. Our research shows that these internet users find search engines useful for checking facts, discovering new information, understanding others’ views on issues, exploring their own views and deciding how to vote.

International variations

We found that people in different countries do vary in how much they trust and rely on the internet and searches for information. For example, internet users in Germany, and to a lesser extent those in France and the United Kingdom, are more trusting in TV and radio news, and more skeptical of searches and online information. Internet users in Germany rate the reliability of search engines lower than those in all the other nations, with 44 percent saying search engines are reliable, compared with 50 to 57 percent across the other six countries.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/nQXkq/2/

In Poland, Italy and Spain, people trust traditional broadcast media less and are more reliant on, and trusting of, internet and searching. Americans are in the middle; there were greater differences within European countries than between Europe as a whole and the U.S. American internet users were so much more likely to consult multiple sources of information that we called them “media omnivores.”

Internet users generally rely on a diverse array of sources for political information. And they display a healthy skepticism, leading them to question information and check facts. Regulating the internet, as some have proposed, could undermine existing trust and introduce new questions about accuracy and bias in search results.

The ConversationBut panic over fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles is exaggerated, and not supported by the evidence from users across seven countries.

William H. Dutton, Professor of Media and Information Policy, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kafka Wins in Poll

Whether the work of Franz Kafka remains relevant to understanding politics and bureaucracy in the digital age has just receive a boost from a ‘Twitter poll’ I conducted for the fun of it. I asked: “to understand contemporary world developments, should one study: Hobbes, Rousseau, Orwell, or Kafka? The findings, of course, have no scientific basis, and I only had 17 people voting from around the world, but what did we find?

First, Rousseau received no votes at all. As a graduate student, trying to understand how people thought about politics and society, we often quipped: some people believe in Hobbes, while others believe in Rousseau. Then, in the early-1970s, it was still a toss up. Has Rousseau lost credibility in the digital age?

Actually, Hobbes came in third, with 18 percent of the votes, not that much more of a hold on contemporary perspectives on society than was Rousseau.

George Orwell drew more votes, with 24 percent, nearly a quarter of respondents. Clearly, Orwell is far more prominent in contemporary public debate over politics and society in the digital age, particularly around the rise of a surveillance society. The new Orwell play, 1984, is even at the London Playhouse Theatre at this time, and was even in Williamstown, just outside of East Lansing, recently. While he remains one of my favorites, and 1984 my major recommendation for any student of privacy and surveillance in the digital age, he is beaten by …  

 

 

 

Franz Kafka, who garnered 58 percent, a clear majority of votes in this Twitter poll. From this poll, it seems that many might well be thinking that we are living in a truly Kafkaesque world. So if you start trying to make sense of the absurdity of many current developments in America and the world, maybe Kafka would be a good start to your summer reading.

 

Fake News May Trump Other Current Panics over the Internet and Social Media

I recently posted a short overview of the findings of one of our projects on fake news, filter bubbles, and echo chambers in The Conversation. All three are foci of panic over the potential political implications of new technologies, such as search algorithms and social media friending and de-friending mechanisms. Given the comments received and the worries expressed in those comments, the fake news panic trumps all the others – no question. 

Why?

One reason is that it is so new. The public debate over fake news only began to arise during the 2016 elections in the US, though it quickly spread internationally. I’m sure I could be corrected on that, but I believe that is roughly the case.

Secondly, the definition – to the degree that is fair to apply to this concept – is being constantly enlarged and blurred by pundits and politicians referring to more and more ‘news’ as fake. In fact, ‘fake’ is becoming an almost viral term. There are many ways to characterize much of the news, some of it is patriotic journalism, some partisan, some misinformation, some just poor reporting, etc. But more and more of the whole journalistic enterprise is being labelled as fake. But journalists are not the victim so much as among the major users of this term, increasingly characterizing mainstream media as real news versus blogging and social media as the sources of fake news. In such ways, it has become a pejorative term used to discredit the butt of the insult.

These are a few of the reasons why we did not use the term ‘fake news’ in our survey of Internet users. We asked other questions, such as how often they found wrong information on different media. That said, we found the a surprisingly large proportion of people tend to check information they believe to be suspect, such as by using a search engine or consulting other sources.

So despite the rising panic over fake news, I still believe it is under-researched and over-hyped.

Notes

Short note on our study is here.

The full report of our study is here.

Why is the panic around echo chambers, filter bubbles, and fake news?

A report we just completed for the Quello Center on ‘Search and Politics‘ concluded that most people are not fooled by fake news, or trapped by filter bubbles or echo chambers. For example, those interested in politics and with some ability in using the Internet and search, generally consult multiple sources for political information, and use search very often to check information they suspect to be wrong. It is a detailed report, so I hope you can read it to draw your own conclusions. But the responses I’ve received from readers are very appreciate of the report, yet then go on to suggest people remain in somewhat of a panic. Our findings have not assuaged their fears. 

Why?

First, these threats tied to the Internet and social media appeal to common fears about technology being out of control. Langdon Winner’s book comes to mind. This is an enduring theme of technology studies, and you can see it being played out in this area. And it is coupled with underestimating the role users actually play online. You really can’t fool most of Internet users most of the time, but most people worry that way too many are fooled.

This suggests that there might also be a role played by a third person effect, with many people believing that they themselves are not fooled by these threats, but that others are. I’m not fooled by fake news, for example, but others are. This may lead people to over-estimate the impact of these problems.

And, finally, there is a tendency for communication and technology scholars to believe that political conflicts can be solved simply by improving information and communication. I remember a quote from Ambassador Walter Annenberg at the Annenberg School, where I taught, to the effect that all problems can be solved by communication. However, many political conflicts result from real differences of opinions and interests, which will not be resolved by better communication. In fact, communication can sometimes clarify the deep differences and divisions that are at the heart of conflicts. So perhaps many of those focused on filter bubbles, echo chambers and fake news are from the communication and the technical communities rather than political science, for example. If only technologies of communication could be improved, we would all agree on …  That is the myth.

More information about our Quello Center report is available in a short post by Michigan State University, and a short essay for The Conversation.

Wonderful Student Team on Study of Whiteboards at MSU

I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.

Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.

[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]

Irem, Bill, and Bingzhe

A Metric for Academics: A Personal Suggestion

Every year in the US, and at various intervals in other countries, academics must pull together what they have done to provide administrators with the data required for their indicators of performance. Just as metrics provided baseball teams with a new tool for more systematically choosing players, based on their stats, as portrayed in the popular film Moneyball, so universities hope to improve their performance and rankings by relying more on metrics rather than the intuitions of faculty. Metrics are indeed revolutionizing the selection, promotion, and retention of academics, and units within universities. Arguably, they already have done so. The recruitment process increasingly looks at various scores and stats about any given candidate for any academic position.

Individual academics can’t do much about it. And increasingly, the metth-1rics will be collected without the academic even doing any data gathering, as data on citations, publications, and teaching ratings get generated in the course of being an academic. Academic metrics are becoming one more mountain of big data ready for computational analysis.

I am too senior (old) to be worried about my own metrics. They are not great, but they are as good as they will ever be. My concern is most often with administrators tending to count everything that can be counted, rather than trying to develop indicators that get to the heart of academic performance. Of course, this is extremely difficult since academics seldom agree on the rating of their colleagues. A scholar who is a superstar to one academic is conceptually dead from another academic’s perspective. So this controversy is one of many factors driving academia towards more indicators or hard evidence of performance. The judgments of scholars vary so dramatically. At least by counting what can be counted, there is some harder evidence that might be indicative of what we try to measure – quality.

So what can we count? It varies by university, but I’ve been in universities that count publications, of course, but every kind of publication, from refereed journal articles to blogs. And each of these might be rated, such as by the status of the journal in which an article appears, or the prestige of the publisher of a book. But that is only the beginning. We count citations, conference papers, talks, committees, awards, and more. Therefore, we perennially worry about whether we published enough in the right places, and did enough of anything that is counted.

In the UK, there has been an effort to measure the impact of an academic’s work. There have been entire conferences and publications devoted to what could be meant by impact and how it could be measured. Arguably, this is a well intentioned move toward measuring something more meaningful. Rather than simply counting the number of publications (output), why not try to gauge the impact (outcomes) of the work? It is just that it is difficult to reliably and validly measure impact, given that the lag between academic work and its impact can be years or decades. Take Daniel Bell’s work on the information society, which had a huge impact, which went well beyond what might have been expected in the immediate aftermath of his publication on The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Nevertheless, indicators of impact will inevitably be added to all the other growing number of indicators, even thought universities will spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to document this metric. th

In this environment, because I am a senior in academia, I sometimes get asked how a colleague should think about these metrics. Where should they publish? How many articles should they publish? Which publisher should they submit their book for publication? It goes on and on.

I try to give my opinion, but my most general response, when I feel like it will be accepted as advice and not criticism, is to focus on contributing something new to your field. Rather than think about numbers, think about making a contribution to how people think about your field.

This must go beyond the topic of one’s research. It is okay to know what topics or areas an academic works in, but what has he or she brought to that field? Is it a new way for doing research on a topic, a new concept for the area, or a new way of thinking about the topic?

In sum, if an academic’s career was considered, by another academic familiar with their work, could they say that the person had made an original, non-trivial contribution to the study of their field? This is very subjective and difficult to answer, which may be why administrators move to hard indicators. Presumably, if someone has made an important new contribution, their work will be published and cited more than someone who has not. That’s the theory.

However, the focus on contributing new ideas can give academics a more constructive motivation and an aim to guide their work. Rather than feeling that your future is based on getting x number of journal articles published, you make publication a means to a more useful end in itself, furthering progress in your field of study. If you accomplish this, the numbers, reputation, and visibility of your work will take care of themselves. What would be a new contribution to your field? That is exactly the right question.