Disinformation and fake news: are search engines bad guides?

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How well-intentioned tips for online research lead users to even more misinformation—and how to get out of this predicament.

“Do some research,” “Think about it,” and “Do not rely on the media” are all examples of well-intentioned advice that is not always beneficial. What appears to be advice on handling information responsibly is especially popular among lateral thinkers, troublemakers, and fake news disseminators. “Do the research” is a QAnon conspiracy theorist mantra. Why do those who spread questionable information themselves recommend that readers verify this information via online research?

Users are unsettled by their own research
The answer is simple: search engines are bad guides. Readers who search for more information on supposedly false information usually find even more false information. Studies published in the renowned scientific journal “Nature” have closely examined this phenomenon.

The result is that true information does not become truer through online research. Those who believe it to be true continue to believe it to be true, while those who believe it to be false are rarely proven wrong by googling.

However, the picture is very different when it comes to false information. Anyone who correctly believes that false information is false risks finding even more false information through online research and being convinced of something wrong. Around 20 percent of users who correctly identified fake news as false in the studies had a different opinion after researching it online.

Research needs to be learned
How do you avoid this Google trap? The study’s authors identified particularly inefficient search strategies that should be avoided. If you want to check the information yourself, you should never use the title of the message to be checked as a search term or copy other parts of the message and enter them into search engines.

Such searches often lead to even more false information. However, this is exactly what the less digitally savvy participants in the study did.

When in doubt, it is also of little use to wait and research later. Over time, there is more and more critical information from fact-checkers, but it is not even found by users who use poor search strategies. And the false information continues to spread, leading to more misleading search hits. If you want to examine news critically, summarise the information you seek in your own words and begin searching; this yields far more reliable results.

Fake news
The Duden dictionary defines fake news as false reports spread in the media and on the internet, especially on social networks, with manipulative intent.

Men share misinformation, and women allow themselves to be deceived
Researchers at TU Dresden reached similar conclusions and recently published their findings in “Nature”. The most important findings are that users overestimate their ability to distinguish between true and false information, men share more false information, and women are more often deceived by false information.

Young men with right-wing political views are particularly adept at sharing false information, although they usually do so unintentionally. Men tend to share more news than women, and as they age, they become more cautious and adept at distinguishing between true and false information.

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