Is Transparency Really Reducing The Impact Of Misinformation?

A recent study investigated YouTube’s efforts to provide more transparency about the ownership of certain YouTube channels. The study concerned YouTube’s disclaimers displayed under the video that indicate the content was produced or is funded by a state-controlled media outlet. The study sought to shed light on whether or not these disclaimers are an efficient means to reduce the impact of misinformation.  

tl;dr

In order to test the efficacy of YouTube’s disclaimers, we ran two experiments presenting participants with one of four videos: A non-political control, an RT video without a disclaimer, an RT video with the real disclaimer, or the RT video with a custom implementation of the disclaimer superimposed onto the video frame. The first study, conducted in April 2020 (n = 580) used an RT video containing misinformation about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The second conducted in July 2020 (n = 1,275) used an RT video containing misinformation about Russian interference in the 2020 election. Our results show that misinformation in RT videos has some ability to influence the opinions and perceptions of viewers. Further, we find YouTube’s funding labels have the ability to mitigate the effects of misinformation, but only when they are noticed, and the information absorbed by the participants. The findings suggest that platforms should focus on providing increased transparency to users where misinformation is being spread. If users are informed, they can overcome the potential effects of misinformation. At the same time, our findings suggest platforms need to be intentional in how warning labels are implemented to avoid subtlety that may cause users to miss them.

Make sure to read the full article titled State media warning labels can counteract the effects of foreign misinformation by Jack Nassetta and Kimberly Gross at https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/state-media-warning-labels-can-counteract-the-effects-of-foreign-misinformation/

Source: RT, 2020 US elections, Russia to blame for everything… again, Last accessed on Dec 31, 2020 at https://youtu.be/2qWANJ40V34?t=164

State-controlled media outlets are increasingly used for foreign interference in civic events. While independent media outlets can be categorized on social media and associated with a political ideology, a state-controlled media outlet generally appears independent or detached from a state-controlled political agenda. Yet they regularly create content concomitant with the controlling state’s political objectives and its leaders. This deceives the public about its state-affiliation and undermines civil liberties. The problem is magnified on social media platforms with their reach and potential for virality ahead of political elections. A prominent example is China’s foreign interference efforts in the referendum on the independence of Hong Kong.

An increasing number of social media platforms launched integrity measures to increase content transparency to counter the integrity risks associated with a state-controlled media outlet proliferating potential disinformation content. In 2018 YouTube began to roll out an information panel feature to provide additional context on state-controlled and publicly funded media outlets. These information panels or disclaimers are really warning labels that make the viewer aware about the potential political influence of a government on the information shown in the video. These warning labels don’t provide any additional context on the veracity of the content or whether the content was fact-checked. On desktop, they appear alongside a hyperlink leading to the wikipedia entry of the media outlet. As of this writing the feature applies to 27 governments including the United States government. 

Source: DW News, Massive explosion in Beirut, Last Accessed on Dec 31, 2020 at https://youtu.be/PLOwKTY81y4?t=7

The researchers focused on whether these warning labels would mitigate the effects on viewers’ perception created by misinformation shown in videos of the Russian state-controlled media outlet RT (Russia Today). RT evades deplatforming by complying with YouTube’s terms of service. This turned the RT channel into an influential resource for the Russian government to undermine confidence of the American public to trust established American media outlets and the United States government when reporting on the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. An RT video downplaying the Russian influence operation was used for the study and shown to participants with and without a label identifying RT’s affiliation with the Russian government as well as a superimposed warning label with the same language and hyperlink to wikipedia. This surfaced the following findings: 

  1. Disinformation spread by RT does impact viewer’s perception and is effective at that.
  2. Videos without a warning label were more successful in reducing trust in established mainstream media and the government
  3. Videos without a warning label but a superimposed interstitial with the language of the warning label were most effective in preserving the integrity of viewer’ perceptions
Source: RT, $4,700 worth of ‘meddling’: Google questioned over ‘Russian interference’, Last accessed on Dec 31, 2020 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTCSbw3W4EI

The researchers further discovered small changes in coloring, design and placement of the warning label increase the viewer taking notice of it and it helps with absorbing the information. Both conditions must be met because noticing a label without comprehending its message had no significant impact on understanding the political connection of creator and content. 

I’m intrigued by these findings for the road ahead offers a great opportunity to shape how we distribute and consume information on social media without falling prey for foreign influence operations. Though open questions remain: 

  1. Are these warning labels equally effective on other social media platforms, e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, etc.? 
  2. Are these warning labels equally effective with other state-controlled media? This study focused on Russia, a large, globally acknowledged state actor. How does a warning label for content by the government of Venezuela or Australia impact the efficacy of misinformation? 
  3. This study seemed to be focused on the desktop version of YouTube. Are these findings transferable to the mobile version of YouTube?  
  4. What is the impact of peripheral content on viewer’s perception, e.g. YouTube’s recommendation showing videos in its sidebar that all claim RT is a hoax versus videos that all give RT independent credibility?
  5. The YouTube channels of C-SPAN and NPR did not appear to display a warning label within their videos. Yet the United States is among the 27 countries currently listed in YouTube’s policy. What are the criteria to be considered a publisher, publicly funded or state-controlled? How are these criteria met or impacted by a government, e.g. passing certain broadcasting legislation or declaration?
  6. Lastly, the cultural and intellectual background of the target audience is particularly interesting. Here is an opportunity to research the impact of warning labels with participants of different political ideologies, economic circumstances and age-groups in contrast to the actual civic engagement ahead, during and after an election   

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