American citizens are remarkably bad at separating facts from opinions

American citizens are worryingly poor at distinguishing between facts and political opinions. This may not be the news you wanted to hear in an election year, but it is the outcome of new research led by scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Political Science.

“The ability to distinguish between an opinion and a statement of fact is critical for citizens to manage the flow of political information they receive on any given day,” said co-author Professor Jeffery J. Mondak in a statement .

In the age of polarizing discourse on social media, viral mis- and disinformation, and AI-generated counterfeiting, sifting through the facts of a political story is a challenge. But Mondak and co-author Matthew Mettler believe the problems in distinguishing truth from fiction start even further down the chain.

“A huge amount of research is being done into disinformation. But what we found is that even before we get to the stage where we label something as misinformation, people often have difficulty distinguishing the difference between factual statements and opinions,” Mondak said.

To investigate this, study participants were asked to categorize twelve statements about current events as ‘fact’ or ‘opinion’. An example of a factual statement was “President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” while one of the opinion statements read, “Democracy is the greatest form of government.” The survey was conducted online between March 9 and 14, 2019 and included 2,500 people from across the country.

Nearly half of the respondents, 45.7 percent, performed this task no better than pure chance.

Among the people who had more success with this task, some similarities emerged. Having greater knowledge of both current events and civics in general, as well as higher levels of education and stronger cognitive skills, were all associated with modest performance improvements.

The biggest factor influencing incorrect responses was political partisanship.

“As partisan political views become more polarized, both Democrats and Republicans tend to construct an alternate reality in which they report that their side has gathered the facts and the other side has only opinions,” Mondak explains.

“It’s not just that there were many incorrect answers, but that many of the errors were not random. They were systematic errors because many respondents shaped their answers to fit their partisan narrative.”

The problem, as Mettler put it, is that partisan bias “distorts people’s ability to talk their way through these statements.” And the way news reporting is changing isn’t helping matters. “The trend today, especially on cable news, is more of a blurring of opinions and facts,” Mondak added.

According to these findings, there remains a substantial portion of the population that disagrees not only about the facts of political issues, but also about the definition of what constitutes a fact in the first place.

Mondak and Mettler worry that this makes people more susceptible to manipulation and less open to attempts to correct misinformation, for example by fact-checking organizations (or your favorite science news website).

“[A] consensus of ‘We can agree to disagree’ can arise even when it comes to questions of indisputable facts. Well, you can’t just ‘agree to disagree’ that 2 + 2 = 22,” Mondak explained.

All of this paints a rather bleak picture, but can we do anything?

In their article, the two emphasize that fact checking can be curative, but not preventive. For that we have to go straight back to school, when people are first taught the difference between fact and opinion. By consistently emphasizing when their reporting is based on factual statements and when they share opinions, media organizations can continue to reinforce this distinction in the minds of the public.

Otherwise, the authors conclude that it is almost inevitable to be duped by misinformation: “A poor distinction between facts and opinions leaves individuals uninformed, not because they are wrong about the facts, but because they are wrong about what facts are.”

The research was published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

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