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Why are some people more immune to falsehoods and what can we learn from them?

In recent years, laudable initiatives launched by the public, private and people sectors have focused on closing access gaps in Singapore’s digital divide.

Why are some people more immune to falsehoods and what can we learn from them?

The author believes that hands-on exercises in existing digital literacy programmes that cultivate “workman-like” skills go some way in helping individuals gain competency in evaluation information integrity.

In recent years, laudable initiatives launched by the public, private and people sectors have focused on closing access gaps in Singapore’s digital divide.

They include providing all secondary school students with a personal laptop or tablet for learning, and the Seniors Go Digital programme to help seniors pick up digital skills.

However, the Institute of Policy Studies conducted a study in 2020, and over one and a half years, it found another stark gap beyond digital access — a misinformation-immunity gap, in other words, a gap in the ability of various different people to discern falsehoods.

So, who are the more vulnerable in our society in this regard? More importantly, what can we learn from those with stronger immunity against false information?

The first phase of our study, which involved a representative survey sample of 2,011 Singaporeans, uncovered demographic and non-demographic traits that influence people’s susceptibility to false information.

Those more susceptible tended to be older, lived in one- to three-room public housing, and had higher trust in local online-only media.

They also had stronger confirmation bias in news seeking and processing, poorer self-efficacy when discerning real information from false information, and were less knowledgeable about how media and technology infrastructures influence the information they received.

To uncover the practices and habits of those with stronger immunity against false information, we conducted a qualitative study involving in-depth interviews with a diverse sub-sample of 50 Singaporeans, and closely examined their information seeking and verification practices.

Participants in this second phase of our study carried out two activities — they browsed the news as they normally would and verified an article that contained false claims about 5G technology.

We screen-recorded how they went about these activities, and watched the playback with them to ask why they did what they did when seeking and verifying information.

We identified some distinct practices among people with stronger immunity against false information.

SOURCE EVALUATION AND EXTERNAL VALIDATION

Overall, people turned to a variety of sources to keep up with the news.

However, those with stronger immunity against false information carefully distinguished news from official sources (for example, legacy media) from news shared by interpersonal networks (for instance, friends).

They were also more sceptical of sponsored articles and were wary of potential content manipulation.

In contrast, those with weaker immunity relied more on their friends and social media for the news. They also paid less attention to informational details (such as publication dates) and often took the perspectives of the majority as a proxy for truth.

When verifying information, we observed that people with weaker immunity practised more internal validation — assessing the informational characteristics found within an article, such as the images, tone and language used. This is known as vertical reading.

On the other hand, those with stronger immunity practised more external validation — turning to other perceived authoritative sources such as legacy media outlets as well as government and academic sources to verify a piece of information.

This is what researchers in the field refer to as lateral reading.

IMPLICATIONS FOR LITERACY PROGRAMMES

These findings highlight key differences between those with stronger immunity and those with weaker immunity against false information, and how specific information seeking and verification practices and habits may explain the misinfo-immunity differences between the two groups.

Moving forward, what can be done to close this misinfo-immunity gap?

First, literacy lessons by schools and other agencies that roll out digital literacy programmes to the public on source evaluation need to adopt a more contextualised approach to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex information landscape.

This is because the skills needed to effectively assess the credibility of a source on social media platforms like Facebook may be different from the skills needed to do the same on search engines like Google Search, or on instant messaging apps like WhatsApp.

For example, on social media sites like Facebook, individuals may encounter information that is created and shared by a range of sources, such as legacy media, non-legacy media, subject matter experts and social media influencers.

Individuals need to be aware of the factors that influence information creation for each of the different types of sources, besides being able to discern facts from personal opinions.

Similarly, when using Google search, individuals should be cognisant of how search works (for example, how algorithms rank the search results that they see).

Hands-on exercises in existing digital literacy programmes that cultivate “workman-like” skills go some way in helping individuals gain competency in evaluation information integrity.

Secondly, more emphasis must be given to cultivating the habit of external validation and lateral reading when verifying information.

Successful literacy programmes elsewhere, such as the Stanford History Education Group’s Online Civic Reasoning Course, have established that lateral reading is a more effective information evaluation strategy than vertical reading.

With perpetrators of online falsehoods becoming more skilful in mimicking the informational characteristics of credible sources — by, say, replicating the look and feel of established sources — a mere reliance on internal validation may continue to put people at risk of false information.

Thirdly, there is a need to increase public awareness of both local and international fact-checking websites like Factually and Snopes.

Our study found that participants were generally unfamiliar with fact-checking websites and chose not to click these websites despite them appearing among top search results when performing information verification.

This finding corroborates what we observed in the first phase of our study where only 22.7 per cent of those surveyed said they used fact-checking sites to verify information.

Thus, more efforts must be targeted at incorporating fact-checking websites as a staple in people’s media diets.

As we continue to work on closing fundamental access gaps in Singapore’s digital divide, equal attention also needs to be given to ensure that everyone possesses the literacy skills needed to be effective and critical information consumers online.

With online falsehoods becoming more sophisticated, digital literacy programmes must be enhanced to bridge the misinfo-immunity gap among Singaporeans.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Carol Soon is a senior research fellow and Nandhini Bala Krishnan is a research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies. Shawn Goh is a Master of Science candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

 

Related topics

falsehoods fake news digital skills digital divide Technology

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