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Published March 30th 2020

Fake News Week 2020 Interview: Dr Delia Dumitrescu & Andrew Ross, MA, on Misinformation, Social, and the Media

Brandwatch chats to academics about their fascinating research into the impact of social media misinformation as it slips into trusted news sources

As part of our Fake News Week series, Brandwatch was delighted to chat to  Dr Delia Dumitrescu and Andrew Ross about their research on social media, the press, and how misinformation can find its way into both.

Dr Delia Dumitrescu is a Lecturer in Media, Culture, and Politics at the University of East Anglia, and has dedicated much of her academic career to studying how people react to different kinds of communication.

“I work on a variety of things, but mostly they have to do with psychology and communication, and the impact of exposure to communication on behaviours and attitudes and the mechanisms behind those behaviours and attitudes,” she says. She’s particularly interested in visual communication.

Meanwhile, Andrew Ross started his academic career in applied psychology before later moving into politics and political communication, which is where he met Dr Dumitrescu. They’ve worked on various fascinating projects since.

Ross is now a researcher at Loughborough University where he works as part of the Online Civic Culture Center (O3C), a multi-disciplinary team that looks at what the impact of social media is on civic culture.

Together, Dumitrescu and Ross have done a lot of fascinating research. While we can’t cover it all here, we’ll be diving into some of their findings around social media vox pops and hearing their thoughts on fake news in 2020.

The evolution of the vox pop

Vox pops are a way for journalists to get the voices of the general public into their news articles. Traditionally, that might mean chatting to random people on the street to gauge their feelings, and quoting them in an article.

But in today’s high-pressure newsrooms, journalists don’t always have the time to pop out and gather opinion from ‘the man on the street’. Instead, they’re looking to social media to gather opinions.

“You don’t even have to leave your seat to get a vox pop now,” explains Ross. “And obviously that’s a very attractive thing to do if you’re a hard-pressed journalist who’s got more and more content to write and less and less time.”

Perceptions of public opinion

Inspired by previous research, Dr Dumtrescu and Ross co-authored a study on how vox pops sourced from social media in online news articles affect people’s perceptions of public opinion.

For example, does including a larger number of posts that are in favor of an issue affect how people perceive the wider publics’ view?

“Our research suggests that the ratio of opinions – if you have more pro-issue opinions than anti-issue opinions in an article – can significantly influence the way readers perceive wider public support to be for that issue,” says Ross.

“Just the collection of tweets actually influences perceptions of public opinion,” says Dr Dumitrescu. “You can give an indication that public opinion goes one way or another. Or you might give the indication that public opinion is split – let’s say you have an equal number of tweets on each side – which might not actually be the case. It’s an indication of where public opinion is going that’s not based in reality.”

You can find the full paper here.

The implications

So vox pops used by journalists in online articles can influence how we, as readers, perceive the wider public to think about a particular issue. So what?

The implications, as the academics explain, are actually pretty terrifying.

“This may have down-the-road impacts on democratically relevant things,” says Ross. “Because we know perceptions of public opinion can influence the way people think about which party they might vote for, which candidate they might vote for.”

The overrepresentation of positive social posts about a politician, for example, can give the impression that the public generally is in favor of that politician.

Additionally, and this the real Fake News Week kicker, the social posts quoted in online news sources aren’t necessarily written by real people.

For example, state-sponsored ‘troll’ accounts have been quoted by what are usually regarded as trusted news sources.

“Some of them [the troll accounts] got very good at writing very eye-catching posts that perfectly fit a certain narrative. As a result, a lot of different news agencies were found to have included these posts as genuine vox pops within their articles,” says Ross.

Why is fake news so sticky?

Part of what makes misinformation so dangerous is how easily it spreads and how hard it is to put right. I asked Dr Dumitrescu what she thought of how brands react when fake news spreads.

When a concept becomes familiar, she says, it’s very hard for brands to get rid of it, even if it’s totally false.

“A particular piece of information, no matter how fake it is, can become familiar. If it’s familiar it gets into the fluency of thinking. It becomes intuitive and easy to retrieve. Information that’s easily retrievable is given more value. I guess that’s one of the explanations why if a brand gets associated with something bad, if they are addressing it by saying ‘it’s not true, it’s not true’, that’s not really helping the case because it’s making that association even more familiar in people’s minds. Then, it’s just very difficult to dismiss it later on. Familiarity is a cue. The brain takes it as a cue that this is valuable.” – Dr Delia Dumitrescu

Fake news in 2020

Our conversation turns to the immediate present and near-future – the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a wave of curious stories around the cause and potential cures.

Each of us mentioned stories we’d come across ‘in the wild’ that made spurious correlations or contradicted official advice. I asked Dr Dumitrescu and Ross what they thought about the current situation and the future. One of the topics that came up was the anti-vaccination movement.

“I’m interested in why people react the way they do and it has a lot to do with motivated reasoning. Basically, people wanting to reach certain conclusions upfront and trying to put new information in a schema they already have. Trying to fit it as much as possible,” says Dr Dumitrescu. “Thinking about people who are already anti-vaccine – what will they do when there’s a coronavirus vaccine? My prediction is they will probably resist it.”

The conditions that give rise to the spread of fake news are still pretty much in place. So how can we tackle it going forward?

“It’s a tough thing to try to tackle disinformation. One of the main things that gets put out there is this idea of media literacy – that we should go to trusted sources of the media. It’s very good advice but, as we’ve seen in relation to our research, even trusted sources of media can fall prey to disinformation trolls. Lots of journalists have fallen prey to these trolls and included them as genuine vox pops – and these are from really trusted sources. It’s a tough and evolving threat.” – Andrew Ross

While we didn’t quite get to a solution in our chat about misinformation, media, and social media, I very much enjoyed chatting to Andrew and Delia about their research, and can’t wait to see what other research projects they get stuck into.

With special thanks to Dr Delia Dumitrescu and Andrew Ross, MA, for sharing their time and expertise.

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