EXETER, England — Fake news has been a growing problem in recent years, and while many outlets have been vigilant in fighting against it, a new study finds that sometimes all it takes is just an implication or subtle hint within news coverage that can increase belief and adherence to false facts.
Researchers from the University of Exeter say that innuendo and the suggestion of fake information in news report only fuels widespread belief in conspiracy theories. Already experts are calling on media outlets to be faster about correcting inaccurate information online and on television, and to be more discerning about who they invite to give their analysis.
In the study, 1,000 participants were divided into five groups and then asked to read a mock newspaper article. Group one received information explicitly promoting a conspiracy theory. Their article, citing “concerned citizens,” claimed that the Zika outbreak in Brazil was caused by genetically modified mosquitoes released by a pharmaceutical company looking to promote their vaccine.
Group two received the same information along with facts debunking the myth — the mosquitoes were actually released after the epidemic in order to control the outbreak, and they were released by an organization not released to the vaccine.
Groups three and four were given information that implicitly hinted at a conspiracy theory, with the fourth group also receiving debunking information. The fifth group was a control group.
The researchers found that, unsurprisingly, explicit promotion of the conspiracy theory increased belief. However, they found that the articles implicitly hinting at the conspiracy theory also led to an increase, though not as high.
“Fortunately, the debunking information brings conspiracy levels back to the same level as the control. Unfortunately, the debunking information does not reduce conspiracy beliefs below the level found among participants in our control group,” says professor Jason Reifler, one of the leaders of the study, in a university release.
Reifler says the study shows how important it is for media outlets to vet their guests they interview on-air or consider any innuendo within quotes they run in print articles. Even the slight questioning of the truth or hint at a conspiracy theory can sway a reader.
“This study shows it is easy to spread conspiracy theories. Debunking appears to work–but only up to a point. As a result, media companies need to be cautious about the guests they invite on air or feature in their publications,” he says. “When guests imply a conspiracy, journalists should push back to the extent they can. Having lived in both the US and the UK, my experience is that UK journalists do a better job at this than their US counterparts. But, there is always room for improvement.”
The research was presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Texas.