Fact-checking services are an effective means of combating misinformation on the Internet, according to a new study conducted in four countries.
A team from George Washington University looked at the impact of fact-checking in Argentina, Nigeria, South Africa, and the UK, and found little variation in their positive effects.
They also found no evidence of a “backfire” effect from fact-checking, said study co-author Thomas Wood.
“When we started doing misinformation about five years ago, there was agreement that correcting misinformation was not only ineffective, but it exacerbated the problem and made people more entrenched in their false beliefs,” he explained.
“We have found no evidence of this in these four countries. What we did find was that fact-checking can be a very effective tool against misinformation.”
The researchers worked with fact-checking organizations in the four countries that are part of the International Fact-Checking Network, a body that promotes impartial and transparent fact-checking.
They evaluated five fact-checks that were unique to each country and two – related to Covid-19 and climate change – that were tested in all four countries.
The fact checks in each country, conducted in September and October 2020, covered a wide range of misinformation, including local politics, crime, and the economy.
Some of the 2,000 participants in each country received only the wrong information, while others received the wrong information, followed by the actual corrections used by local fact-checking organizations in response to misinformation.
They then rated how much they believed the false statement on a scale of 1-5.
In each country, control group members did not receive any misinformation or corrective statements, but simply indicated to what extent they believed the statements.
Compared to misinformation, each fact check yielded more accurate beliefs, while misinformation did not always lead to less accurate beliefs compared to the controls.
The results showed that fact checks increased actual accuracy by 0.59 points on the five-point scale. Misinformation reduced the actual accuracy by less than 0.07 on the same scale.
“Disinformation, in general, is much less persuasive than corrective information,” Wood said.
In three of the countries (South Africa, Argentina, and the UK), the researchers returned two weeks later and asked the participants how much they believed in the false statements they previously evaluated. The results showed that the positive effects of fact-checking were still robust two weeks later.
Two subjects were tested in all four countries. One involved climate change, testing how far people believed in the false statement, widely shared at the time, that there were two years of record-breaking global cooling between 2016 and 2018. Covid-19 pandemic, that gargling with salt water would prevent infection with the coronavirus.
The results showed that exposure to disinformation about climate change did not uniformly cause people to be less accurate on that subject.
But the misinformation about Covid-19 reduced accuracy in three out of four countries and had the largest disinformation effects found in the study. However, the fact checks did help to increase accuracy on this point.
All participants also completed measurements of their political beliefs, to see if that affected how they were influenced by fact-checking.
“People in less ideological countries will actually stick to the facts more,” Wood added, noting that fact-checking was still a valuable service in four countries that were diverse across racial, economic, and political lines.