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Your Recreation Time Can Increase Your Misinformation Risk

A new study finds a correlation between time spent online and gullibility.

Key points

  • More time spent online makes one more susceptible to misinformation
  • Critical thinking ability is the best predictor of misinformation resilience.
  • Younger people are more suspicious and therefore more likely to misclassify real headlines as fake.

According to a new study, how much leisure time we spend on the internet and digital media affects our ability to think critically, and our ability to spot misinformation. According to the results of a survey by YouGov, utilising the Misinformation Susceptibility Test developed by university researchers, people who are described as “very online” are the most vulnerable to fake news.

A team of researchers, led by Rakoen Maertens of Cambridge University, and Friedrich Götz of the University of British Columbia have spent four years researching and developing a new Misinformation Susceptibility Test: MIST. The MIST is a two-minute test that measures how well you can discern real news from fake news. It utilises AI to develop compelling headlines, before asking you to discern which ones are real and which ones are fake. It measures four variables through the testing:

  • ability to correctly identify real news.
  • ability to correctly identify fake news.
  • veracity discernment, i.e,. the ability to distinguish between the real and the fake headlines.
  • gullibility or scepticism, i.e., how distrustful or naïve you are on a scale from “overly sceptical” to “overly gullible”.

Having tested the platform extensively with more than 8,000 participants over two years, the software has now been actively deployed by polling platform YouGov, which surveyed 1,516 U.S. adult citizens in June, and found that on average, participants correctly classified 65% of the headlines that they were shown. Importantly, the test has highlighted disparities in effectiveness based on age, with younger people (under 44) being less likely to spot fake news correctly (12 out of 20 times) than older people (over 45), who spotted 15 out of 20 headlines correctly. This runs counter to the public assumption that the older generation is less “tech savvy” and therefore more likely to be sucked in by fake news headlines.

Other interesting findings include higher mistrust in younger generations; a distinct connection between one's ability to spot fake headlines and their amount of time spent online; and little or no variation in ability between political party supporters. The results quantified that younger people are ultimately more suspicious and therefore more likely to misclassify real headlines as fake, at the same time self-reporting more time online, suggesting a connection between the two. Those who spend two hours or fewer hours of recreational time online each day are twice as likely to be in the highest-scoring category (30% vs. 15%) as people who spend 9 or more hours online per day. This also correlates with other research that highlights young people consuming more news via social media rather than at source and therefore being more susceptible to misinformation. The researchers also suspect that there is a positive correlation between age and ability to spot fake news, simply based on the level of experience older generations have in consuming news over their lifetime.

While interesting, the study is limited in that it only presents a series of news headlines, and not full articles. Context can be essential to helping us determine misinformation, although that is also not foolproof.

According to an interview with NiemanLab, one of the key research takeaways is that critical-thinking ability is the best predictor of misinformation resilience. Maertens classified this as people having an ability to accept that they can be wrong, a willingness to accept other viewpoints, and a willingness to update their own beliefs.

What this ultimately reinforces is that media literacy is an essential skill, and constant practice of critical thinking is essential.

The keys to practising critical thinking are to:

  • Pause and slow down. Humans typically prioritise quick and efficient decision-making, but in doing so can make snap judgements. Actively pausing and considering what we are thinking and why we are thinking that way allows us to identify assumptions and make better decisions.
  • Ask questions. More questions can give us more information, particularly when they are open questions and don’t restrict responses to a yes/no answer. This can help fill gaps in knowledge as well as providing indicators as to whether information is true, valid, and/or complete.
  • Deliberately consider the bias. All of us have a bias, so understanding and considering the perspective and context of the information is essential in improving the quality of information that we interact with.
  • Remain open-minded. Accepting that our views differ from others and remaining open-minded, as well as being humble enough to change our views, allow us to be better critical thinkers. Psychologically, there are a number of aspects that diminish our ability to think critically, including confirmation bias, group think, truth bias, and the illusory truth effect. They all contribute to the way we seek information and how curious we are, as well as how receptive we are to updating our views.
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