Conspiracy theories, like the world being flat or the Moon landings faked, have proven notoriously difficult to stomp out. Add a partisan twist to the issue, and the challenge becomes even harder. Even near the end of his second term, barely a quarter of Republicans were willing to state that President Obama was born in the US.
If we're seeking to have an informed electorate, then this poses a bit of a problem. But a recent study suggests a very simple solution helps limit the appeal of conspiracy theories: news media literacy. This isn't knowledge of the news, per se, but knowledge of the companies and processes that help create the news. While the study doesn't identify how the two are connected, its authors suggest that an understanding of the media landscape helps foster a healthy skepticism.
News media literacy is the catch-all term for understanding how bias, unconscious or otherwise, influences the creation and consumption of news. This includes an awareness of the priorities of news organizations as businesses and the influence that ownership can have on the slant of news articles. But it also comes down to issues like recognizing that we bring our own biases in to the news we consume, allowing two people to come away from the same article with very different information.
Researchers have designed survey questions to help define news media literacy, and various studies have shown that high degrees of literacy correlate with skeptical analysis of news stories and greater knowledge of current events. In a new study, three researchers decide to see how news media literacy interacts with one of the more intractable issues of recent years: politically motivated conspiracy theories.
"Despite popular conceptions," the authors point out, "[conspiratorial thinking] is not the sole province of the proverbial nut-job." When mixed in with the sort of motivated reasoning that ideology can, well, motivate, crazed ideas can become relatively mainstream. Witness the number of polls that indicated the majority of Republicans thought Obama wasn't born in the US, even after he shared his birth certificate. While something that induces a healthy skepticism of information sources might be expected to help with this, it's certainly not guaranteed, as motivated reasoning has been shown to be capable of overriding education and knowledge on relevant topics.
To get at this issue, the researchers turned to Mechanical Turk to get a survey population. While they're aware of the limitations of this service (and it seemed to produce a sample that was slightly more liberal than the US population), they note that it produces more representative populations than grabbing a bunch of local undergraduates. Those surveyed were given a group of questions that assessed their news media literacy by asking whether they agreed with statements like "politics tend to be covered like horse races instead of focusing on in-depth issues" and “I am in control of the information I get from the news media.”
They were then given a series of conspiracy theories that the authors felt had a built-in political bias. This may be the weakest portion of the study, as some of these have a questionable political connection. For example, belief in a vaccine-autism connection is termed "liberal," when other surveys have indicated the issue of vaccine safety has not been politicized. Other ideas seem to reside well beyond the fringes, like the idea that 9-11 was an inside job or that school shootings have been staged to build support for gun control (those were deemed liberal and conservative, respectively). Still, the majority of examples used had a fairly clear political slant.
As a whole, the expected connection held up: "for both conservatives and liberals, more knowledge of the news media system related to decreased endorsement of liberal conspiracies." And, conversely, the people who did agree with conspiracy theories tended to know very little about how the news media operated.
It's not clear at this point what the key factor behind this is. A desire for accurate information could lead to both a low tolerance for conspiracies as well as a desire to understand the media landscape. Or it could be that the process of evaluating the media landscape has helped people select sources that provide them a consistent stream of quality information. Other causal relationships are also possible, and the study wasn't designed to understand which is most important.
The effect is also pretty small. Once demographics and politics were controlled for, news media literacy correlated with about a 10 percent difference in the belief in various conspiracies. But, as noted by the authors, news media literacy can be taught: "Bolstering a news consumer’s knowledge is more easily accomplished than trying to alter the more difficult to change psychological traits he or she brings to the consumption of news." Plus it's associated with other things that we consider positive, like greater participation in the political process.
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