Unsure if news is true? You may be more likely to believe misinformation

Science and Health

In a counterintuitive revelation, a recent study challenges the widely held belief that searching online to scrutinize misinformation would decrease belief in false narratives. Instead, the research, featured in the journal Nature, unveils a surprising outcome: the act of online fact-checking paradoxically heightens the probability of believing in misinformation.

Led by Kevin Aslett, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida and faculty research affiliate at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP), the study offers fresh insights into the impact of search engines on their users—an area of inquiry that has been relatively underexplored.

Zeve Sanderson, the founding executive director of CSMaP and one of the paper’s authors, emphasizes the unexpected trend: “Our study shows that the act of searching online to evaluate news increases belief in highly popular misinformation—and by notable amounts.”

The researchers attribute this counterintuitive outcome to the quality of search-engine outputs. The study indicates that this phenomenon is more prevalent among individuals for whom search engines return lower-quality information, pointing to the notion of “data voids”—areas dominated by low-quality or false news, potentially influencing the online search process.

Searching online to evaluate news

The Nature study employed a series of five experiments to gauge the impact of online search engines in evaluating false or misleading views – a behavior endorsed by technology companies and government agencies. Participants were recruited through platforms like Qualtrics and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for experiments designed to assess the effects of searching online to evaluate news (SOTEN).

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

The key aspects investigated in the first four studies included:

1. The immediate impact of SOTEN on belief in false or misleading and true news shortly after publication.2. Whether SOTEN could alter an individual’s assessment after they had already evaluated the veracity of a news story.3. The persistent effect of SOTEN months after publication.4. The impact of SOTEN on recent news about a significant topic with substantial news coverage, focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic.


A fifth study combined a survey with web-tracking data to identify the effect of exposure to both low- and high-quality search-engine results on belief in misinformation. This approach, utilizing a custom web browser plug-in to collect search results, shed light on how the quality of search results influences users’ beliefs in misinformation. The study incorporated source credibility ratings determined by NewsGuard, a browser extension that assesses the trustworthiness of online content.

The collective findings across the five studies revealed a consistent and statistically significant increase in belief in misinformation when individuals engaged in the act of searching online to evaluate news. Importantly, this effect persisted regardless of the time elapsed since the publication of misinformation, challenging assumptions that fact checks would mitigate its impact over time.

Professor Joshua A. Tucker, co-director of CSMaP and one of the paper’s authors, underscores the implications: “The findings highlight the need for media literacy programs to ground recommendations in empirically tested interventions and search engines to invest in solutions to the challenges identified by this research.”

As the paradox unfolds, the study not only prompts a reevaluation of common assumptions but also underscores the critical intersection of technology, user behavior, and the dissemination of information in the online landscape.