With elections taking place around Europe, ‘real’ news is dominated by headlines about fake news and voters preaching to the converted in ‘echo chambers’. Should we believe the hype? Is fake news something the electorate and political leaders alike should be worried about? It seems not.

Experts at Michigan State University recently released a new report that reveals the behaviour of 14,000 people in Europe and the US in relation to fake news and echo chambers. Most respondents cite that they are able to make informed decisions and avoid so called political filter bubbles.

In our guest blog, principal investigator of the project, William H. Dutton shares top tips for getting out of the bubble.

Despite colourful anecdotes about fake news stories, voters trapped in echo chambers and personalisation creating political filter bubbles, they do not justify the panic being fanned by pundits and politicians. This is the focus of the latest Quello Center study of ‘search and politics’ at Michigan State University. We surveyed 14,000 internet users in seven countries; Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the US. We asked people how they use search engines and social media to find information about politics.

We found that users say they are able to identify and check information they believe to be wrong. Strikingly, they also cite that they are able to avoid an echo chamber of like-minded people and learn new things.

So, how do they do this?

Here are five key things people can do to avoid getting stuck in a personalised filter bubble:

1. Use a diversity of media sources.

Most internet users, and particularly those interested in politics, look for information about politics on multiple media and information sources. They are not limiting themselves to one platform or source, on average consulting more than two offline sources, such as friends, newspapers, and TV, and more than two online sources, such as search, online news sites, and social media.

2. Use search engines, but not only search.

Two-thirds of internet users in our seven nations use search at least once a day to find, check, or navigate to information, and it is one of the most trusted sources of information about politics. Searching for topics and issues, you are less likely to be captured by a single political viewpoint, but use it in addition to and too complement other sources.

3. Open yourself to news and views that challenge your beliefs and opinions.

We know people like information that confirms their views, but over a third of internet users say they ‘often’ or ‘very often’ read news they do not agree with. Of course, you need not read views you have repeatedly heard, but you should seek out, and don’t avoid, fresh and alternative perspectives on the issues.

4. Don’t un-friend or block sources of people with different views.

One way to lock yourself in an echo chamber is to block those who express views you disagree with. However, less than 20 percent of internet users we surveyed said they un-friend or block people on social media simply because of their political views.

Obviously, it is perfectly acceptable for people to block or un-friend abusive or hostile trolls, but the idea that most people shape their social networks on the basis of political viewpoints is misleading. Most social networks are composed of old and new friends, acquaintances, colleagues at work, and so on, and not based on a political clique. Online networks can be more diverse than face-to-face networks at work or in one’s neighbourhood.

5. Be sceptical of information about politics and check information you suspect to be wrong or fabricated.

Over 50 per cent of internet users use a search engine ‘often’ or ‘very often’ to check information they find online. This is one of the primary uses of search engines – to help individuals validate information or help settle an argument over the facts of a case.

In general, we found that the more interested you are in politics, and the more skilled you are in search and internet use, the more likely you already do these five things. It may well be that those offline are more susceptible to these problems than those online. So if you follow this approach you can help coach those less interested in politics, or less skilled in search or internet use, to burst bubbles and open echo chambers. In such ways, people can gain new information and make more informed choices in politics.

 

William H. Dutton is the James H. Quello Professor of Media and Information Policy at Michigan State University, and principal investigator of the project, entitled ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, supported by Google. The full report is available onlineA short essay on the report is available to read on The Conversation.