Many Americans can’t tell the difference between content published by news organizations and content published by satirical websites, according to a recent study conducted by a team of communication researchers at The Ohio State University.
Researchers collected both true and false news stories that’d been widely shared over social media, selected the highest-profile stories—half of them true and the other half false— then drafted brief statements summarizing key points of each story and surveyed Americans over a six-month period, asking participants a series of questions about each statement, including whether respondents believed the story was true or false and how confident they were in their answers.
While many of the “fake” news statements in these surveys originated from deceptive sources, others instead came from popular satirical sites such as The Babylon Bee and The Onion, content intended to humor readers, not intentionally mislead them. Nevertheless, researchers discovered that many respondents were quick to believe this content as well.
|Top five most-believed satirical claims by The Onion (and the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who labeled the claims ‘definitely true’).|
It seems no tale is too tall for some Americans. Even patently absurd items, such as a July Onion story that Vice President Mike Pence had told migrant children detainees at an ICE detention center that they'd have safe and sanitary conditions in heaven, was believed to be true by 36 percent of respondents.
An astounding 67 percent of respondents even believed a June Babylon Bee gag that Senator Cory Booker described the Second Amendment as a dangerous “loophole” that allows Americans to buy guns.
Finally, an incredible 70 percent of those polled believed that National Security Advisor John Bolton described an attack on two Saudi Arabian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman as “an attack on all Americans.”
Some of the most interesting findings in the study were revealed when respondents’ answers were parsed out by their respective political backgrounds. Among the most-shared factually inaccurate content researchers provided in the surveys, a large portion of it came from two popular satire outlets, The Babylon Bee (which leans conservative) and The Onion (which leans liberal).
The percentage of respondents identifying as Republican who believed satirical claims from Babylon Bee articles far outweighed respondents identifying as Democrat. For example: 23 percent of Republicans believed the Babylon Bee’s satirical “report” that Rep. Ilhan Omar said being Jewish is an inherently hostile act. By contrast, only eight percent of Democrats were this credulous.
When analyzing content that originated from satirical media company The Onion, on the other hand, Democrats were considerably more likely to be fooled. For example: 14 percent of Democratic respondents believed an Onion story that claimed former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that releasing the Mueller Report would be a threat to public safety because so many Americans would be disturbed by evidence of the president’s innocence. By contrast, only nine percent of Republicans fell for this joke.
The takeaway: many people will take satirical information as gospel fact when that content caters to their political biases
“It’s no surprise that, depending on the headline, satire might be more likely to deceive members of one political party over another,” the study’s authors wrote. “Individuals’ political worldviews consistently color their perceptions of facts. Still, Americans’ inability to agree on what is true and what is false is a problem for democracy.”
The study surveyed more than 800 Americans during a dozen surveys conducted between February and July. Findings were originally published via The Conversation, an independent journalism nonprofit that publishes commentary and analysis authored by academics and edited by journalists for the general public.