Warnings can alert consumers to ‘fake’ news

Being reminded about the existence of misinformation disguised as legitimate news can boost news readers’ ability to identify articles that are “fake” or false, according to researchers at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The research suggests that social media platforms could play a role in preventing readers from falling prey to misinformation designed to look like news. Led by Bartosz Wojdynski, Jim Kennedy New Media Professor at Grady College, subjects were provided with four science articles to read—two legitimate news articles and two that were fictional stories. Once the subjects read the news articles, they asked the subjects a series of questions.

The study found that readers who were given a warning that science misinformation exists were more discerning in classifying news articles as false or true. Warned readers also rated the two false articles as less credible than those who were not warned.

“It is important to occasionally remind news consumers to use their critical thinking skills,” Wojdynski said. “Since many articles are found through social media, this study shows the impact that even an automatic disclaimer on Facebook could have in reminding people to use their best judgement when they look at webpages.”

The study, authored by Wojdynski and Grady College doctoral students Matt Binford and Brittany Jefferson, was recently published in “Open Information Science.”

Online misinformation designed to look real is often referred to as “fake news,” although in recent years politicians and celebrities have adopted that phrase to dismiss factual news stories that are not to their liking, Wojdynski said.

Authors of misinformation or spam content typically style their content to resemble news to capture clicks or make readers think it is real, Wojdynski said. Because of this, many readers assume that because a story looks like news, it is factual.

The study, titled “Looks Real, or Really Fake? Warnings, Visual Attention and Detection of False News Articles,” used sophisticated eye-tracking equipment to examine which page elements participants viewed while evaluating each story. Elements included the headline, source information, the date the story was published, author information, internal story links and external page links. This information was compared with the post-survey questions to determine what role, if any, these design elements played in helping to identify the credibility of the article.

The study found that more people spent time looking at links to other content published by the website than bylines and timestamps. Time spent viewing two-page areas – those containing links to the publisher’s other content and those containing identifying information including the banner and URL – predicted correctly classifying one of the articles as false.

“This is important because a lot of literature talks about people looking at the URL and the source information, but this research shows that subjects are also trying to get a sense of who the publisher is by looking at what kinds of other stories they publish through external links,” Wojdynski said.

Post-survey questions measured the level of agreement that participants had with questions about credibility like “This article told the whole story” and “I found this article to be believable.”

The results of the study showed that participants receiving the warning that not all content that looks like news may be credible significantly increased false news detection compared with those who did not have the warning.

“This study makes a case for how, although media literacy interventions are our best way to influence how people evaluate online sources,” Wojdynski said, “a simple reminder to be discerning can have an impact.”

This research will also set the foundation for future eye-tracking research examining how subjects use the web to verify information in determining whether an article is credible or not.

Bartosz Wojdynski named Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media

Grady College has named Bartosz Wojdynski a Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media.

Wojdynski is an associate professor of journalism and director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab, which conducts eye-tracking research to evaluate effective message design and media consumption.

“Bart is known for his groundbreaking research on consumers’ understanding of sponsored news stories and the influence of news design on consumers’ visual attention,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “Bart came to Grady with the goal of establishing a leading eye-tracking research laboratory dedicated to the study of visual attention to digital media. He has accomplished this, and his collaborative research has made significant contributions in health communication and advertising.”

The professorship is supported and named for James C. Kennedy, the chairman of Cox Enterprises.

Wojdynski studies the effects of digital media design on attention and cognition, focusing on native advertising, online misinformation and the role of images in information processing. He is particularly interested in the role that visual attention to message elements plays in shaping understanding, emotional reactions and persuasiveness of content.

Wojdynski uses a computer inside his eye-tracking laboratory. (Photo: Dorothy Kozlowski)

In the DMAC Lab, Wojdynski and student research associates measure, in real time, consumers’ attention and emotional responses, and examine the relationship between these factors and consumers understanding and attitudes. This process can provide a more detailed understanding of message effects than post-exposure questions alone.

Wojdynski has presented his research at a number of national and international conferences, and his papers have been published in journals including Journalism, Journal of Advertising, Media Psychology, the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, and Computers in Human Behavior, among others.

He teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in multimedia journalism, data visualization, experimental design and psychological effects of communication technology.

“To serve as a Kennedy Professor of New Media is a great honor,” Wojdynski said. “Jim Kennedy endowed these professorships in the spirit of supporting innovation, research and outreach related to the changing media landscape, and these same goals underlie my own research program as well as the work that my student lab members and I conduct in the DMAC.”

Wojdynski expects the professorship will allow him to pursue more ambitious interdisciplinary experiments in digital media attention with institutional partners, as well as help ensure that student researchers have access to the state-of-the-art training and materials and that research findings reach the audiences that need them.

Grady College has four Jim Kennedy Professors: James Hamilton, Karen King and Karen Russell and Wojdynski.

Grady College faculty member studies media consumption

The following was written for UGA Columns and UGA Today.

As a faculty member, Bart ­Wojdynski derives satisfaction from seeing the switch flipped within the minds of his students.

“I love watching students develop interests they didn’t know they had,” he said. “My goal is to try to meet students at the intersection of what they want out of a class and where they might want to go in the future.”

Coincidentally, that is exactly what happened to him in a research methods class at the beginning of his master’s program that led to his career. The lightbulb moment happened when he realized he would not have to choose between being a journalist or a social scientist, but instead could study the social science of how people understand journalism and other digital media.

Since then, Wojdynski has been on a fast track, teaching digital design and media research classes while conducting experiments to understand the role of design and attention in how consumers’ attitudes are shaped by media content. In ­addition to the ­coding classes where he teaches journalism students content creation in HTML, CSS and JavaScript, he also teaches courses in data visualization, digital media design and media psychology.

Whether he is teaching a traditional in-person class or one that’s online, a format he has worked with since his first faculty position at Virginia Tech, he said he feels fortunate to be teaching classes in his wheelhouse.

Much of Wojdynski’s research involves conducting eye-tracking studies on digital news and advertising, which follow and measure how people view on-screen information within fractions of a second. He was first exposed to eye tracking in 2008 while at UNC assisting a faculty mentor with a grant exploring how online news consumers used content like story carousels, audio slideshows and homepage hyperlinks. The main goals were to establish how readers recalled content and whether they were persuaded.

Wojdynski maintained an interest in eye-tracking research throughout his doctoral program and his two years as an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, but it wasn’t until he started teaching at the University of Georgia that he was able to conduct his own eye-tracking research and work with doctoral students on their own projects.

Wojdynski said that the move to UGA was appealing not only because of the reputation UGA has, but also the strong communication research and Ph.D. program at Grady College. The fact that Grady was willing to investigate what would be involved in establishing an eye-tracking lab was an added benefit.

With support from the college and university, Wojdynski started the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab in his first semester at UGA. Since then, Wojdynski has been mentoring doctoral students in designing media research experiments in a highly collaborative, teaching hospital-type environment.

Wojdynski, who was recently promoted to associate professor with tenure, is equally energized by using his research and that of others to inform his teaching.

“I try to show my students how humans look at content and what messages they come away with,” he said. “Whether I am teaching designers, writers or videographers, I hope they come away from my class with the desire to bring a little more of a human-centered, evidence-based perspective to the content they create.”

Making sense of fake news

(This feature was originally written for and printed in University of Georgia Research. It is reprinted with permission.)

A year ago, a contentious election culminated in a new president for the United States. It also introduced the country—and the world—to fake news.

From individual stories like Pizzagate (an online story alleging that a Washington, D.C., pizzeria was involved in a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton) to examinations of its role in the presidential election, fake news has become a staple of headlines. Recent stories have explored how fake news is created, how it goes viral, and increasingly, how to combat it.

Some people believe all conspiracy theories, whether from the political left or right, and those people tend to have high levels of anxiety and low levels of trust, Hollander says. Photo: Terry Allen
Some people believe all conspiracy theories, whether from the political left or right, and those people tend to have high levels of anxiety and low levels of trust, Hollander says. Photo: Terry Allen

But the concept of fake news is not new. For perspective, Research Magazine turned to four experts at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication—faculty members Jay Hamilton, Bart Wojdynski and Barry Hollander and Ph.D. student Jessica Maddox. They approach the topic from different angles, but share at least one premise: Fake news means different things to different people.

The definition of fake news has expanded, the researchers said, from its original meaning—a story that’s deliberately made up for personal, political or economic gain. Fake news also may refer to a story that was true in its original form but was altered, accidentally or deliberately, through the process of being shared, usually through social networks. And it’s used as a pejorative term, applied by the user to discredit something he or she doesn’t agree with.

“Fake news is multiple things, and that’s what makes it so complicated,” said Jay Hamilton, cultural historian of communication and Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media.

Today’s concerns about fake news are informed by our nation’s experiences with news bias and propaganda, he said.

During the late 19th-century circulation battles, publishers like William Randolph Hearst sensationally slanted news (or invented it, as in the case of the sinking of the Maine in 1898) to increase newspaper readership and promote a particular political position. In the latter half of the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin used his weekly national radio program to drum up anti-Semitic sentiment and consolidate a nationalist political program sympathetic to fascist governments.

Prevalent in these concerns, Hamilton said, is the idea that messages are powerful and people are susceptible. But there’s a big difference between news bias and fake news, according to Hamilton, head of the department of entertainment and media studies.

“One’s about standpoint and skew. That’s bias,” he said. Fake news “is about fabrication and completely nonsensical things that have never happened.”

And what’s driving the fake news phenomenon now is a hyper-competitive online media marketplace seeking to capitalize on internet users’ attention to bring in advertising dollars.

To address the problem, Hamilton recommends reforming the structure of online advertising sales and giving users tools to investigate content. He’s impressed with stopfake.org, a journalism project out of Ukraine that verifies facts and refutes false reports about events in Crimea covered in the media.

“It’s really instructive that such an innovative effort at combating fake news came out of a former Soviet republic,” he said. “Who else is going to be so skilled at wading through the crap than people who have had to deal with that for generations?”

Bart Wojdynski, assistant professor of journalism, wants to know how visual cues influence people when they’re evaluating information, particularly since readers increasingly view online information outside of its original context.

“A majority of people under 45 access news daily via social media channels like Facebook and Twitter, where it’s interspersed with content from their friends, acquaintances and colleagues,” he said.

In this “news snacking” context, Wojdynski said, people are less likely to question the information or the source.

“We know that people consume news for different reasons, and sometimes there’s a diversion component,” he said. “If you’re trying to pass the time for two minutes while waiting in line, you’re probably not going to do a lot of in-depth research to verify the sources of a story—especially on a mobile device.”

It’s not just social media that’s blurred the lines between news, entertainment and advertising, according to Wojdynski, who serves as director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab.

“It makes sense that consumers don’t always think of investigative reporting when they think of news, because news organizations are involved in a whole lot more, like car sections and living guides,” he said. “That has diluted the perceived value of news.”

Wojdynski is exploring how people’s scrutiny of the news is driven by confirmation bias (information that confirms what they think) and desirability bias (information that they want to be true).

“Ultimately, I think that’s what it boils down to—the degree to which people question what they see and read,” he said.

Barry Hollander’s research involves people who question everything.

“I look at conspiracy theories—why people believe them, and what factors make them more likely to believe,” said Hollander, professor of journalism.

In a recent study, Hollander looked at theories of the left and right, who believes them and why. Some people, he found, believe in all conspiracy theories, regardless of which side they’re on, because they think the world is out to get them.

“It’s easy to make fun of people who believe in these crazy stories, but it tells us something about the way they make sense of the political world,” he said.

Hollander believes that readers adjust their standards of credibility based on their opinions.

“People hear what they want to hear. They believe what they want to believe,” he said. “That’s why fake news succeeds.”

“If you really hate Donald Trump, or if you really hate Hillary Clinton, you are much more likely to believe fake news that makes that person look bad.”

Trying to counter a fake news story is difficult when people believe the media is biased against their viewpoint. And even when readers don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories, they still have a tendency to gravitate toward people who share similar views. While that clustering used to happen in geographic spaces—people who shared the same socioeconomic status and political views congregated in the same neighborhoods, for example—it now plays out in social media spaces.

“We all create these bubbles, but the lines of demarcation are much brighter now because of the fragmentation of the media,” he said. “We can now watch the cable news outlet that agrees with our point of view. We can have Facebook friends and follow people on Twitter who agree with our point of view.”

The rise of filter bubbles, which allow people to self-select who and what they’re exposed to, is part of the fake news problem, according to Jessica Maddox.

“If you normally watch CNN, flip to Fox News for a couple of minutes,” said Maddox, who expects to earn her Ph.D. next year. “It’s good to step outside of your comfort zone when it comes to media.”

Maddox has explored memes—pieces of media that spread from person to person via the internet and are tweaked along the way. The concept is similar to the kids’ game of telephone, where the message heard by the last person bears virtually no resemblance to what was originally said.

“It’s almost done rather harmlessly,” she said. “You’re just moving this information along, but without stopping to check or evaluate, it can become something completely different in the end.”

At the root of the issue is not just media literacy, she said, but social media literacy.

“So many of us—millennials through baby boomers—never received any kind of social media training,” she said. “We were just thrown into it, and we all learned as we went.”

It’s not a partisan issue, according to Maddox. Everyone is susceptible to believing, and passing along, fake news. She once posted a fake news story on Facebook—about Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, then a nominee, starting a fascism club in college—and later learned it wasn’t true.

“That was a really humbling moment,” she said.

What we need now, Maddox said, is to apply critical thinking skills to social media. Before social media, it was easy to identify fake news—it was on the cover of the tabloid newspaper in the checkout line at the supermarket. These days, it’s not so easy.

“We need to realize that article about Cher’s alien baby can be on our social media feeds now,” she said. “We as responsible citizens should pause when we see something like that.”

No matter the medium—newspaper, broadcast news, Facebook—Maddox has the same advice: “Question the source—that’s what I always advise people to do.”

Growing demand leads Grady College to offer additional online courses for summer semester

Grady College will offer 11 online courses for the 2017 summer semester to keep up with the continued demand from students for such classes.

“Again this year, we increased the number of online course offerings,” said Alison Alexander, senior associate dean for academic affairs for Grady College. “Students can find college-wide and major-specific courses to take during the summer term when they are off campus.”

Many of the courses offered are in high demand during the spring and fall semesters. Online summer courses give students the opportunity to take classes that normally fill up quickly.

Most of the courses will comprise very brief video or slide presentations presenting an introduction to the lesson, then will guide students through readings, web-based tutorials and projects to perform and evaluate on student’s own time.

Projects are the highlight of many of the offerings and the online medium provides a good way to share projects and encourage feedback among students. It is also a better medium for sharing long-form media like television shows in the case of the media and television study classes.

Sabrena Deal, a graphics lecturer who taught the course online last summer, will be leading the online graphics course again this year.

“The ADPR 3520E course will give students the opportunity to earn certifications in the most recent versions of the Adobe Creative Software through the Lynda.com platform,” said Deal. “These certifications translate directly to resumes, portfolios and LinkedIn.”

“We know that the industry is looking for students with these skills and are glad to offer the course to more students through the online offering,” Deal continued.

The courses that will be offered include:

Brand Communication Marketing (ADPR 5990E) —taught by Mark McMullen, this seminar is designed to synthesize and integrate many of the theoretical and practical approaches to the study and application of advertising, public relations, and related communication fields. Emphasis is on critical thinking, analytical processes and acquisition of specialized knowledge pertaining to the seminar topic.

Data Gathering and Visualization (JOUR 5380E) — taught by Bartosz Wojdynski, this course will familiarize students with the conceptual, procedural and technical aspects of telling newsworthy stories through visual depictions of information. Students will practice gathering and processing data, executing basic statistical procedures and creating original explanatory and informational graphics for news.

International Mass Communication (JRLC 5080E) — taught by Andy Kavoori, this course will focus on the mass media of the world — what they are like, how they operate and what impact they have. Philosophies of different systems will be compared, as well as efforts at development or regulation of these systems. Attention will be given to print and electronic media and to international news agencies.

Introduction to New Media (NMIX 2020E) — taught by John Weatherford, this course will explore the economic, technical, social and cultural aspects of media technologies. The course will take a historical perspective, covering three sections: Old New Media, Now New Media and Next New Media. Students will develop a solid working knowledge of the field and know where and how to further their own knowledge outside of the classroom.

Graphic Communications* (ADPR 3520E, this class is currently full) — taught by Sabrena Deal, this course will teach students the skills to design messages for particular audiences and to prepare designs correctly for print, digital and social environments. Students learn to analyze and to use the principles of design, typography, layout, color theory, art and illustration, and copyright law. Adobe Creative software is used to produce a variety of projects for student portfolios.

Multiplatform Story Production (JOUR 4090E) — taught by Ivanka Pjesivac, students enrolled in this course will develop enterprise news stories across platforms. Each student will produce a long-form web story with links and references, a video story (television news package), a photo essay, a radio story, a “back story” (explaining issues with the reporting) and a webcast explaining some aspect of the story in depth.

New Media Productions (NMIX 4110E) — taught by Chris Gerlach, this course will provide a solid foundation of technical skills that students can build upon for the rest of their careers. Students learn how to design and develop web products that function effectively with multiple platforms (desktop computers, cellphones, tablets, etc.) and are introduced to coding with PHP, MYSQL and Jquery.

Public Relations Research (ADPR 3510E) — taught by Michael Cacciatore, this course focuses on design, strategy and implementation of public relations research techniques. Study of research theory, methods and practices within the context of public relations case studies and client work.

Race, Gender, and the Media (JRLC 5400E) — taught by Maria Len-Ríos, this course teaches students about the relationship between men, women, and racial and ethnic minorities in the United States and the media. Course work includes discussions of representations in mass media (television, print media, advertising and film); impact of representations on audiences; inequities in media professions and institutions; and alternative, feminist and minority media.

The Peabody Archive: TV History and Genre (EMST 5990E) — taught by Shira Chess, this seminar is designed to synthesize and integrate many of the theoretical and practical approaches of the study of mass communication, giving opportunity through a variable topics seminar to analyze processes and effects of mass communication and to acquire specialized knowledge of specific mass media modes of presentation and production.

Topics in Sports Media (JRLC 5880E) — taught by Vicki Michaelis, this course will focus on an issue or trend that has become a social concern or transformational force in sports and sports media. Current examples include college sports realignment and related broadcast rights agreements, social media, the impact of sports concussions and sports analytics.

More information about UGA’s online courses can be found on the UGA Summer School website. Registration for summer 2017 is currently open.