Research & Insights


Fake News, Censorship and the Third-Person Effect

By Clay Calvert

The aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton brought with it much handwringing in news media circles and on social media platforms about the dangers of fake news. Some blame fake news for causing Clinton’s defeat, with the erstwhile candidate herself calling it “an epidemic.”

But there’s a major paradox when it comes to people’s beliefs about fake news.

Specifically, many of us tend to believe that we can spot fake news ― we won’t be fooled by it ― but others out there, who are more naive and less media savvy than us, surely will be duped.

For instance, a December 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans

are at least somewhat confident in their own ability to identify when a news story is almost completely made up. About four-in-ten (39%) are very confident, while another 45% are somewhat confident. Only 9% are not very confident, and 6% are not at all confident. (This is similar to Americans’ general faith in their ability to tell when information online is trustworthy.)

Yet despite the fact that some 84% of those surveyed were either very or somewhat confident in their own ability to spot fake news, 64% of the same people “say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events. This sense is shared widely across incomes, education levels, partisan affiliations and most other demographic characteristics.”

In other words, “I’m no fool, but others are!”

If that’s truly the case, then why are we so worried about fake news? A few high-profile incidents like the Pizzagate shooting perhaps have caused undue panic.

The notion that “I’m no fool, but others are” is, in fact, consistent with what communication scholars call the third-person effect. As W. Phillips Davison, the theory’s founder, summed it up in a 1983 article

In its broadest formulation, this hypothesis predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves.

The danger here, as I explain in a new article published in the Wake Forest Law Review Online, is that individuals who exhibit signs of the third-person effect are also prone to call for censorship of media content in the name of protecting others. This, of course, raises serious First Amendment concerns regarding free speech. In other words, the third-person effect has both a perceptual aspect (what we believe about the influence of messages) and a behavioral component (censorship).

For example, a scholarly study on support for censorship of rap music found that those surveyed

perceived others to be more influenced by negative media messages than themselves. In addition, this perception was strongly related to support for censorship, even after controlling for other variables.

Ultimately, consideration of the third-person effect might help to tamp down some of the rampant frets and fears about fake news. And if it does something more than that, as I argue in my article, the third-person effect “should give lawmakers serious reason to take a thoughtful and deliberate pause before proposing any bills aimed at the censorship of fake news.”

Remedies of educating people about how to spot fake news and publicly shaming fake news websites are far better alternatives than governmental censorship.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

Clay Calvert is the Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication in the Department of Journalism.

Posted: March 13, 2017
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