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Is this fake news?

Does truth really matter in the fight against fake news?

With the journalism industry to social media moguls to Congress deliberating the best approaches for battling fake news, one Ohio State researcher is taking a closer look at truth formation — how one decides what is true.

Truth formation, according to communications Professor R. Kelly Garrett, plays a role in leading people astray, adding to an already complex cocktail of political, social and cognitive influences. He published findings of his study “Epistemic Beliefs’ Role in Promoting Misperceptions and Conspiracist Ideation” in September on Plos One, an open-source journal.

“If your beliefs about science or any political issue are inaccurate,” Garrett said, “then the decisions you make based on those beliefs are likely to be wrong.”

Mind over matter

Garrett named two types of processes at work that have been identified by previous research — the illusory truth effect and political bias.

“People are motivated to believe things when those beliefs help their side,” he said. “In some of my work, I’ve shown that people who use partisan political media are more likely to embrace falsehood even if they know the evidence says something to the contrary.”

Motivations vary from maintaining consistent beliefs to a creating a social buffer. Disputing a claim endorsed by fellow believers risks ostracism, according to Garrett’s current study. People also can be misled by simplicity or familiarity, he said.

The illusory truth effect is the tendency for people to believe information, even if it’s false, after repeated exposure, Garrett said.

“When you hear something frequently, you are more likely to believe that it’s true,” he said. “Statements that are easy to process and easy to think about … tend to be more believable.”

Do you trust your gut?

Garrett’s current study focused on how people decide what is true, which also speaks to misinformation or fake news susceptibility.

Using large, nationally representative surveys, the researchers analyzed three aspects of belief formation — reliance on intuition, the need for evidence and the conviction that facts are politically constructed.

“Some people put a lot of faith in their intuition,” he said. “There’s a great deal of confidence in their ability to know what their gut is telling them is right. Other people are more questioning of their intuition and don’t put as much faith in their gut.”

Individuals who trust their intuition rather than conscious reasoning are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, Garrett said.

Also, those who view facts as political constructs are more prone to misperception than those who believe that hard truth exists, according to the study.

Fact checking matters

But those who weigh their beliefs against existing evidence are less likely to adopt conspiracy theories or other falsehoods, even on controversial topics. They also tend to hold more accurate beliefs, according to the findings.

“Maybe you aren’t an expert on a topic but you can still go and seek out what experts have to say, and that can make a difference,” Garrett said.

This research provides a straightforward way to avoid being misled by your own decision-making strategy or fake news pundits, he added.

“Here, we have very clear evidence that people who make an effort to look at the evidence tend to do better,” he said.