Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped

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By William H. Dutton, Michigan State University

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

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.

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Learn to Spot ‘Alternative Facts’ in Science

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The Volkswagen emissions scandal and past promotions of tobacco are two examples of “alternative facts” in science’s past, a researcher warns.

“In everyday life, we recognize that we should think twice about trusting someone’s decision if they have a significant vested interest that could skew their judgment,” says Kevin Elliott, an associate professor at Michigan State University who specializes in the philosophy and ethics of science. “When reading the latest scientific breakthrough, the same tactic should be applied.”

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False Health News More Popular on Facebook

By Pablo Correa

[BOGOTÁ] The Zika epidemic that spread throughout the American continent last year was accompanied by another outbreak, one of rumors and false news about the disease.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Tulane University in the United States analyzed 200 posts (in English) on Facebook. They found that rumors and conspiracy theories were more popular than trustworthy information.

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The Logic of Journal Embargoes: Why We Have to Wait for Scientific News

by Vivian Siegel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Rumors were flying through the blogosphere this winter: physicists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) may finally have directly detected gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time predicted by Einstein 100 years ago in his general theory of relativity. Gravitational waves were predicted to be produced by cataclysmic events such as the collision of two black holes.

If true, it would be a very big deal: a rare chance for scientists to grab the attention of the public through news of cutting-edge research. So why were the scientists themselves keeping mum?

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