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The Problem of European Misperceptions in Politics, Health, and Science: Causes, Consequences, and the Search for Solutions

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DEBUNKER (The Problem of European Misperceptions in Politics, Health, and Science:Causes, Consequences, and the Search for Solutions)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

The primary goal of the project is to understand misperceptions – the facts that people believe that simply are not true. So far, the project has significantly advanced our understanding of corrections and misperceptions – while also raising important avenues for continued research.

Misperceptions pose a significant problem to European society and democracy. Dealing with problems like vaccine hesitancy/skepticism and climate change require that the public be informed. But surveys consistently show that the public is misinformed about a important issues in politics, science, and health. This project is an attempt to better understand why misperceptions are commonplace, and how to correct them. Previous work has suggested that attempts to correct misperceptions can backfire -- making misperceptions worse. The goals of this project are largely straightforward: understand why people hold misperceptions, and then to understand how to effectively correct these misperceptions. A key element then is to understand why backfires occur sometimes, but not others (and to understand with whom backfires occur).

An important part of the project that has evolved with current events has been understanding fake news -- who consumes it, how much they consume, the effects of fake news on political participation and choice, and ultimately how to combat fake news. The project has been extremely successful in this regard.
To date, we have accomplished an impressive amount of work. To our knowledge, we have conducted the most extensive studies of fake news consumption available. We have conducted surveys and experiments to understand the prevalence of misperceptions, and how to effectively counter them. Going forward, we still have an ambitious amount of data to collect to provide a thorough account of misperceptions that people hold, and (we hope) how to effectively counter them.
This project has progressed beyond the state of the art by providing population level estimates of fake news consumption during the 2016 US Presidential election.

“Fake news” remains one of the most widely debated aspects of contemporary elections across the globe. These factually dubious for-profit articles were shared by millions of people on Facebook (Silverman,2016) and promoted false and misleading claims that many Americans report believing in post-election surveys (Silverman and Singer-Vine, 2016; Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017). Some journalistsand researchers have even suggested that fake news may be responsible for Donald Trump’s victory (Parkinson, 2016; Solon, 2016; Blake, 2018; Gunther, Beck, and Nisbet, 2018). These developments raise significant democratic concerns about the quality of the information that voters receive.

However, little is known scientifically about the consumption of fake news or how it relates topolitical behavior. In this study, we provide the most comprehensive individual-level analysis todate of the correlates and consequences of fake news in real-world outcomes. Our analysis leveragesa unique dataset that combines pre-election survey data and comprehensive web traffic historiesfrom a national sample of Americans. These data enable us to conduct new analyses that are notpossible using post-election self-reports of exposure (e.g. Allcott and Gentzkow 2017), aggregate-level data on visits to fake news websites (e.g. Nelson and Taneja 2018) or behavioral data thatlack candidate preference information (e.g. Fourney et al. 2017).

We report five principal findings. First, consistent with theories of selective exposure, people differentially consume false information that reinforces their political views. Though we estimatethat the supply of fake news was overwhelmingly pro-Trump in orientation, consumption by Trumpsupporters exhibits even greater skew. However, only about one in four Americans visited fakenews websites, which represented approximately 2.5% of people’s online news diet during the studyperiod. Consumption of fake news was instead heavily concentrated among a small subset of people— almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Third, we show that Facebook played a central role in spreadingfake news relative to other platforms. Fourth, fact-checks of fake news almost never reached theirtarget audience. Our data do not record a single case of a respondent who read both a fake newsarticle and a fact-check debunking it. Finally, we see little evidence that fake news affected otherforms of political behavior: Fake news exposure was not associated with differential changes inhard news consumption, vote choice, or turnout behavior.