A Year in Review: 10 of Our Most Interesting Research Findings in 2022

  1. Person-centered terms encourage stigmatized groups’ trust in news.

The Center for Media Engagement, with support from Resolve Philly and Democracy Fund, asked people in recovery from substance abuse disorder, people who have experienced homelessness, and people with a disability for their feedback on news articles. We tested whether the use of person-centered terms makes people in stigmatized groups feel better represented by journalists. Our research found that person-centered terms (e.g. “person with substance abuse disorder”) made stigmatized groups feel more humanized than stigmatizing labels (e.g. drug abuser).

Using stereotypical labels can evoke negative stereotypes and create public stigma. Additionally, the use of these labels can make people feel misrepresented or like the media does not serve them. In fact, our research found that participants trusted articles that used person-centered terms for their group more than articles that used stigmatizing terms. These small changes can shift attitudes in a meaningful and impactful way. If journalists want to better connect with the communities they cover, using person-centered terms is a great way to start.

  1. Memes can help bridge political divides.

Feeling positively about people you disagree with, especially online, is not easy. Previous research done by the Center for Media Engagement shows that a sense of common humanity can help bring people together — even those who disagree with each other politically. Research from our connective democracy initiative, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that this feeling can be fostered through something as simple as memes.

Memes can encourage people to think about common humanity and can help foster a mindset where people can view their political outgroup more positively. This is because the more people feel a sense of common humanity, the more likely they are to believe that they have the skills to develop relationships with those holding opposing views. Social media platforms could help bridge divides between opposing groups by prioritizing this type of content in their algorithms.

  1. Election fraud beliefs come from a crisis of trust. 

In 2022, more than half of Republican voters thought that Trump won the 2020 election. In an effort to understand where this belief came from, the Center for Media Engagement interviewed 56 Americans who hold these beliefs.

Our research found that perceptions of fraud did not hinge on one specific point of evidence; instead, perceptions of fraud were based on an accumulation of suspicions and questions surrounding the election. For example, many people in this group believed that mail-in ballots opened the door to fraud. Another such suspicion was the feeling that Trump was under attack by the media.

When it comes to effectively reaching this audience, newsrooms can follow some of these tips:

  • Explain how mail-in ballots are sent out and counted in the lead-up to elections to alleviate concerns of a free-for-all voting system
  • Consider what types of election night visuals you’re using and how they influence perceptions of election legitimacy
  • Outline differences in election rules across states to help bring clarity to what’s happening in other parts of the country
  • Provide context about whether an incident is isolated or not when reporting on local election mishandlings or mistakes

This group’s biggest problem is that they do not know who to trust. Above all, it is imperative for news outlets to figure out how to bring clarity to coverage and instill trust in those who have suspicions.

  1. News consumption via messaging apps can empower and harm diaspora communities simultaneously. 

Our research found that, as part of the ongoing debate about the declining trust of official news channels, diaspora communities are turning to alternative sources of news and information, such as social media.

The conceptualization of U.S. politics for these groups is informed by cultural context, political ideology, experienced history, and migration. Given experiences of exclusion or omission, marginalized communities turn to alternative sources, such as community-owned media or private social media spaces, which empower them.

Much of the political engagement from these groups occurs on encrypted messaging apps (EMAs) such as WhatsApp. While EMAs offer opportunities for diaspora communities to claim their own spaces, it also means that false information can enter the fray and proliferate due to perceived intimacy. Our research outlined four main themes that defined false content on EMAs:

  1. The sowing of confusion via translational ambiguities,
  2. The leveraging falsehoods to redraw ideological fault lines,
  3. The use of religion to sow doubt about candidates’ views, and
  4. The oversimplification of complex perspectives, policies, and procedures to alter voting decisions.
  1. Even in “news deserts” people still get news.

According to a recent report from the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, one-fifth of Americans live in a news desert: a community with one or no local newspapers. Limited access to local news is connected to negative democratic outcomes such as lower voter turnout and greater polarization. The Center for Media Engagement, however, found that not all is lost: some people living in news deserts don’t believe that they live in news deserts, and that can make all the difference.

Some living in areas without local newspapers do not feel like they are in news deserts because they find their news elsewhere. For example, many of our participants use local Facebook pages as their primary news source. We also found that these Facebook pages are accurate in terms of news reporting — misinformation is shared in less than 1% of posts from these pages. In fact, people who do not think they are in news deserts not only feel more informed but actually are more informed about local issues.

The low levels of misinformation in the Facebook pages we analyzed are encouraging, but moving forward, ensuring that these local hubs are well-equipped to deal with challenges like false information is key.

  1. Key actors in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya use encrypted messaging apps as a medium for propaganda.

In many non-Western countries, authoritarian state actors spread propaganda, including disinformation, in an effort to dominate the information landscape. Our research found that they started to include encrypted messaging apps (EMAs) such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber in these efforts – combining the use of EMAs with traditional social media, targeted internet shutdowns, and the mobilization of social media influencers and diaspora. EMAs, however, are also crucial for secure communication among activists in many of these areas.

Based on our findings in this report, the Propaganda Research Lab at the Center for Media Engagement has some suggestions:

  1. Company representatives from these EMAs would be well-advised to draw up mid- to long-term strategies about how to take on responsible policies.
  2. Collaborating with locally-based civil society groups can provide the necessary resources to mitigate disinformation in these regions.
  3. Platforms should invest additional resources, not only into quantitatively increased and qualitatively more nuanced content moderation, but also into understanding local contexts and consulting non-Western communities when rolling out new features for their platforms.
  1. WhatsApp is becoming crucial for political communication in the United States.

Meta’s WhatsApp is one of the main communication tools for diaspora and immigrant communities in the United States. As such, many WhatsApp users use the app for political communication as well. However, false information can spread quickly, easily, and broadly on the platform.

The Center for Media Engagement conducted a survey to find news and information consumption behaviors of several diaspora groups on WhatsApp and identified several recommendations for addressing the spread of misinformation on the platform:

  • Platforms, lawmakers, and civil society organizations should create more fact-checking initiatives.
  • Instead of limiting researcher access, platforms should develop programs that grant privacy-preserving means for researchers to monitor and track false narratives as they develop.
  • Platforms and civil society organizations should create literacy initiatives that enable all platform users to become potential community moderators — finding ways for lightweight intervention to stop the spread of false information.
  1. Different demographics behave differently when it comes to engaging in anonymous civic participation online. 

The Center for Media Engagement sought to understand how and how frequently people engage in various anonymous civic participation behaviors and how those behaviors differ across demographics. We found that:

  • The most frequent anonymous behaviors (averaging a few times each year) were anonymously searching for information online, completing anonymous surveys/polls, and reading/hearing about anonymous government leaks.
  • The least frequent anonymous behaviors (averaging once or twice in a three-year period) were blowing the whistle anonymously, anonymous reports to tip lines, anonymous uploads to WikiLeaks or similar sources, receiving an anonymous complaint, and sending an anonymous letter to the media.
  • Men engaged in every anonymous behavior assessed more frequently than did women.
  • For several different forms of civic participation, anonymous behaviors were more frequent among highly educated, younger, more liberal users who spend more time online.
  • The ability to communicate anonymously is seen as a basic freedom in the U.S., as if the ability to search for information anonymously. Although online anonymity has presented some new challenges, that interpretation has been historically upheld in U.S. courts.
  1. Unlike certain news outlets, advertisers did not change their habits in response to pandemic news coverage. 

The Center for Media Engagement’s previous research revealed that certain news outlets, primarily Fox News and MSNBC, politicized coverage of the coronavirus and appeared to put profit and partisanship above public health. Yet ad spending did not significantly change throughout the pandemic. Interestingly, this remained true for healthcare advertisers too, who have more of a stake in public health outcomes.

While advertisers hold significant power through their ad dollars, news consumers can take steps to make their voices heard. Viewers can advocate for change regarding overly politicized news coverage by contacting advertisers using this contact list compiled by The Center for Media Engagement.

  1. Newsrooms play a key role in warning audiences about election misinformation.

The role of warning audiences about misinformation is critical for local newsrooms as local ecosystems are targets for mis- and disinformation. The Center for Media Engagement hosted an election misinformation symposium in September 2022 to help newsrooms learn how to detect and deal with false information.

Here are some of the suggestions that were discussed for newsrooms:

  • Carefully consider what images, graphs, and diagrams are incorporated in reporting and ask, “Can this be misleading?”
  • Explain how early election returns work and why the results may change over time. Don’t assume that every viewer has the same background information.
  • Be radically transparent. Offer explanations that show the audience the process of writing a story and how they might access those same resources. Let your audience in behind the scenes.
  • Be sure to represent all sides, but don’t oversample the more extreme cases just because they are more exciting. Extremist journalism can skew audience perceptions, so be sure to paint a clear picture of moderation when it is warranted.
  • Check out tools such as junkipedia, SMAT, FotoForensics, Deepware, and Tineye.

Fighting against misinformation is extremely vital to the legitimacy of our democracy and must be a priority for newsrooms and journalists. The guidance from speakers at the symposium can help newsrooms in this work by providing ways to increase trust and to put a stop to locally circulating misinformation.