The spread of misinformation about Labor's "death tax" during the recent federal election has reignited debate about fake news and how to tackle it.
The timely release of the latest Digital News Report: Australia 2019 sheds some light on perceptions of fake news and what Australian news consumers are doing about it.
The report provides annual in-depth analysis of news consumption in Australia and is part of a global survey involving 38 countries coordinated by the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
The report shows that two thirds of online Australian news consumers (62 per cent) are concerned about what is real or fake on the internet. Interestingly, Australians are more concerned than news consumers in many other countries (55 per cent).
The data show that concern about fake news is strongly linked to news avoidance and news fatigue.
The percentage of Australian news consumers who say they avoid news sometimes, occasionally or often has increased over the past two years from 57 per cent to 62 per cent. Two thirds of those who are concerned about the veracity of online information say they are also more likely to avoid the news.
While only about one quarter of news consumers said they were worn out by news, the majority (79 per cent) of those who are worn out also worry about the veracity of news. Almost all (88 per cent) of the participants who say they avoid news also say they are worn out by it.
But not everyone is worried about what is real or fake on the internet. Closer analysis of the data reveals differences between those who are concerned and those who are not based on education, income and region.
News consumers aged 73+ are more concerned about fake news than younger generations, though Gen Z is close behind. People with higher education and incomes are more concerned, as are news consumers in regional and rural parts of Australia.
Though the survey finds that two thirds of news consumers have a low interest in politics, those who are interested in political issues are the most concerned about fake news. This reflects the fact that people interested in politics are more interested in news and consume more of it. They also tend to be older with higher levels of education and income. As a result, they are more likely to come across fake news and be more aware of the public debate about international interference and misinformation globally, particularly in the 2016 US election. The recent scare campaign conducted during the Australian federal election via social media and TV ads, justifies their worry.
On a positive note, the report shows news consumers are beginning to take more action to counter their concern about fake news. More than one third of news consumers (36 per cent) say they have checked several different sources to check the accuracy of a story. One quarter (26 per cent) say they have started to use more reliable sources of news. Around one fifth say they have stopped using unreliable sources. A similar number decided not to share a story they were unsure about, and say they stopped paying attention to a story shared by someone they didn't really trust.
Interestingly, despite having the highest concern about fake news, those aged 73+ are the least likely to fact-check. In contrast Gen Z news consumers are the most likely to cross check stories or discuss the news with friends. This higher rate of online verification reflects that younger news consumers rely on social media and online for news and are confident in their digital skills, whereas older Australians are more reliant on traditional news sources.
The evidence of fact-checking is good news. It suggests that Australian news consumers are thinking harder about the news they are accessing and sharing, which is really important in today's digital environment. It gives an indication that the high level of public debate about fake news and education about how to detect and combat it, are having a positive impact on people's online behaviour.
However, it is also very clear that the majority of news consumers are not employing any of these fact-checking techniques. What's more, those who are not verifying news have lower education and incomes, are less interested in news, access it less often, and use the fewest number of brands.
When we look at the political orientation of news consumers, almost one third say they "don't know" where they sit on the political spectrum. These people are also less likely to fact-check, have lower education, are less interested in politics and news. People who identify as left or right-wing are more likely to verify the news than those who are centre-oriented or those who "don't know". Left oriented news consumers are most likely to fact check.
This highlights a section of news consumers who are more vulnerable to fake news. In the wake of the federal election and the large number of informal and undecided voters, it raises important questions about the news and political literacy of Australian news consumers. It points to a section of the community with lower levels of education that is possibly making voting decisions based on the fewest number of news sources, which they are much less likely to have checked.
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