New findings from a study published in Nature and led by UCF’s School of Politics, Security and International Affairs Assistant Professor Kevin Aslett shed light on the ways that conducting your own online research can be misleading.

Aslett worked with a team of fellow researchers from New York University and Stanford University over a span of five years. The study was born out of curiosity about how online research helps to detect fake news. Initially, the researchers hypothesized that conducting research would help to identify fake news. However, they were surprised when they found the opposite result.

Assistant Professor Kevin Aslett

Aslett and the research team asked more than 3,000 respondents in six different experiments to rate the accuracy of news stories using search engines. The results showed that using search engines like Google to evaluate false news sources led to a 19% greater likelihood of rating false claims as true. This means that doing their own research can actually mislead the person trying to verify the information.

“We discovered that contrary to conventional wisdom, searching online to evaluate the veracity of misinformation actually increases belief in misinformation,” Aslett says.

This means searching online to figure out if something is false can increase the likelihood of someone believing it.

“This is concerning because if we’re going to encourage people to search online, our hope is that this is going to help them identify the veracity of that news,” Aslett says.

In addition, he says that trust in mainstream media has decreased while trust in search engines has increased in recent years.

Why is this the case? Despite the preeminence that search engines hold in today’s information gathering, some of the information returned by search engines is unreliable. According to Aslett and the team, people often use unique search terms that only low-quality news sources utilize in their writing. Using these keywords exposes individuals to additional low-quality news sources that corroborate the original piece of misinformation. One example researchers found to return false search results was “engineered famine.”

“Those that used this term as a search term were much more likely to get low-quality results than those who did not,” Aslett says.

Implications of Study: A Push for Digital Literacy

A key recommendation by the researchers is an emphasis on data literacy efforts. In particular, Aslett recommends a strategy called lateral reading. This can help identify whether the claim is true.

“Instead of fact-checking the individual claim, you should fact check the source of that information,” Aslett says.

According to Aslett, it’s crucial to understand that fact-checking individual claims is unlikely to yield contradictory information. This is because fact-checking organizations are under-resourced, so they likely haven’t investigated each claim.

Aslett recommends NewsGuard as a great resource to help readers evaluate source credibility and schools to introduce a digital literacy curriculum as early as possible so students are equipped to evaluate news and sources early on.

“This is only going to become a larger problem, and getting kids on board with the right way to identify misinformation and the right sources to use will be really important for society, democracy and public health,” Aslett says.