Considerable scholarly attention has been paid to understanding belief in online misinformation, with a particular focus on social networks. However, the dominant role of search engines in the information environment remains underexplored, even though the use of online search to evaluate the veracity of information is a central component of media literacy interventions. Although conventional wisdom suggests that searching online when evaluating misinformation would reduce belief in it, there is little empirical evidence to evaluate this claim. Here, across five experiments, we present consistent evidence that online search to evaluate the truthfulness of false news articles actually increases the probability of believing them. To shed light on this relationship, we combine survey data with digital trace data collected using a custom browser extension. We find that the search effect is concentrated among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information. Our results indicate that those who search online to evaluate misinformation risk falling into data voids, or informational spaces in which there is corroborating evidence from low-quality sources. We also find consistent evidence that searching online to evaluate news increases belief in true news from low-quality sources, but inconsistent evidence that it increases belief in true news from mainstream sources. Our findings highlight the need for media literacy programmes to ground their recommendations in empirically tested strategies and for search engines to invest in solutions to the challenges identified here.
Despite broad adoption of digital media literacy interventions that provide online users with more information when consuming news, relatively little is known about the effect of this additional information on the discernment of news veracity in real time. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of how information impacts discernment of news veracity has been hindered by challenges of external and ecological validity. Using a series of pre-registered experiments, we measure this effect in real time. Access to the full article relative to solely the headline/lede and access to source information improves an individual's ability to correctly discern the veracity of news. We also find that encouraging individuals to search online increases belief in both false/misleading and true news. Taken together, we provide a generalizable method for measuring the effect of information on news discernment, as well as crucial evidence for practitioners developing strategies for improving the public's digital media literacy.
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