Conspiracy theories, such as that the world is flat or the moon landings were faked, are notoriously difficult to stamp out. Add a partisan twist to the problem and the challenge becomes even more difficult. Even by the end of his second term, barely a quarter of Republicans were willing to declare that President Obama was born in the US.
If we want to have an informed electorate, then this poses a problem. But a recent study suggests a very simple solution helps limit the appeal of conspiracy theories: news media literacy. This is not knowledge of the news per se, but knowledge of the companies and processes that help create the news. While the study does not identify how the two are linked, the authors suggest that an understanding of the media landscape fosters healthy skepticism.
News media literacy is the collective term for understanding how bias, whether unconsciously or not, influences the creation and consumption of news. This includes an understanding of the priorities of news organizations as businesses and the impact ownership can have on the impact of news articles. But it also comes down to things like acknowledging that we bring our own biases into the news we consume, allowing two people to come out with very different information from the same article.
Researchers have designed survey questions to help define news media literacy, and several studies have shown that high levels of literacy correlate with skeptical analysis of news stories and increased knowledge of current events. In a new study, three researchers decide to look at how news media literacy interacts with one of the more persistent problems of recent years: politically motivated conspiracy theories.
“Despite popular beliefs,” the authors point out, “[conspiratorial thinking] is not the only province of the proverbial madman.” When mixed with the kind of reasoned reasoning that ideology can, well, motivate, insane ideas can become relatively mainstream. Witness the number of polls that indicated the majority of Republicans thought Obama was not born in the U.S. even after sharing his birth certificate. While something that instills a healthy skepticism of information sources can be expected to help with this, it is certainly not guaranteed, as reasoned reasoning has been shown to be capable of education and knowledge on relevant topics.
To solve this problem, the researchers turned to Mechanical Turk to get a survey population. While aware of the limitations of this service (and it seemed to produce a sample slightly more liberal than the US population), they note that it produces more representative populations than grabbing a bunch of local students. Respondents were presented with a series of questions that assessed their news media literacy by asking if they agreed with statements such as “politics is usually treated like horse racing rather than focusing on deep issues” and “I am in control of the information I get from the news media.”
They were then presented with a series of conspiracy theories that the authors believed had a built-in political bias. This is perhaps the weakest part of the study, as some of these have questionable political connections. For example, belief in a link between vaccine and autism has been called “liberal,” while other studies have shown that the issue of vaccine safety has not been politicized. Other ideas seem to live far beyond the periphery, such as the idea that 9-11 was an inside job or that school shootings were staged to gain support for gun control (these were considered liberal and conservative, respectively). Yet most of the examples used had a fairly clear political slant.
Overall, the expected connection held: “for conservatives and liberals alike, increased knowledge of the news media system was associated with decreased approval of liberal conspiracies.” And conversely, those who did agree with conspiracy theories usually knew very little about how the news media worked.
It is not clear at this point what the main factor behind this is. A desire for accurate information can lead to both a low tolerance for conspiracies and a desire to understand the media landscape. Or it could be that the process of assessing the media landscape has helped people select sources that provide them with a consistent stream of quality information. Other causal relationships are also possible, and the study was not designed to understand which is most important.
The effect is also quite small. Once demographics and politics were controlled for, news media literacy correlated with about a 10 percent difference in belief in various conspiracies. But, as noted by the authors, news media literacy can be taught: “Strengthening a news consumer’s knowledge is easier to achieve than trying to change the harder-to-change psychological traits he or she brings to news consumption.” In addition, it is associated with other things that we consider positive, such as greater participation in the political process.
Communication and public2017. DOI: 10.1177/2057047317725539 (About DOIs).