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“Fake News” isn’t easy to spot on Facebook, according to a new study, reports Omar Ochoa - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Graphic Courtesy McCOMBS SCHOOL OF BUSINESS, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN

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“Fake News” isn’t easy to spot on Facebook, according to a new study, reports Omar Ochoa

“Fake news consists of deliberately false stories that appear to come from credible, journalistic sources.” – The Associated Press.

By MOLLY DANNENMAIER

An estimated 69 percent of Americans used social media, such as Facebook, as of 2018.

In general, social media are defined as forms of electronic communication (such as websites, YouTube, Twitter. and Instagram, used for social networking, microblogging and publishing) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.

(https://blog.hootsuite.com/types-of-social-media/)

Facebook is a free social media platform on the Internet that promotes and makes easier communication between friends, family, and colleagues.

But for those who get news from social media, a recent study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin offers a strong warning: You can’t trust yourself to make out what’s true and what’s not when you’re on Facebook.

In the study about “Fake News”, participants fitted with a wireless electroencephalography headset were asked to read political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and determine their credibility. They assessed only 44 percent correctly, overwhelmingly selecting headlines that aligned with their own political beliefs as true. The EEG headsets tracked their brain activity during the exercise.

An EEG headset is a wearable device for electroencephalography, a monitoring method to record the electrical activity of the brain.

(https://www.emotiv.com/glossary/eeg-headset/)

“We all believe that we are better than the average person at detecting fake news, but that’s simply not possible,” said lead author Patricia Moravec, Assistant Professor of Information, Risk and Operations Management with the McCombs School of Business. “The environment of social media and our own biases make us all much worse than we think.”

“Fake News” consists of deliberately false stories that appear to come from credible, journalistic sources, according to The Associated Press.

The Associated Press is an independent, not-for-profit news cooperative headquartered in New York City. Our teams in over 100 countries tell the world’s stories, from breaking news to investigative reporting. We provide content and services to help engage audiences worldwide, working with companies of all types, from broadcasters to brands.

(https://www.ap.org/about/)

City of Edinburg’s Facebook, public information content are trustworthy, accurate

However, the City of Edinburg’s Facebook, website, and public information efforts are trustworthy and accurate for many reasons, especially because of a long history of elected leaders, from different administrations, requiring accountability on the part of city government, says Edinburg City Attorney Omar Ochoa, himself a graduate of UT Austin and its law school.

For decades, Edinburg’s city leadership, just like the constituents they serve, have been strong supporters of the people’s right to know what their local city government is doing, said Ochoa. 

“From publicizing in advance, then recording, broadcasting, and saving the videos of the public meetings of the Edinburg City Council and its jobs-creation arm, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, to making easily available the full agenda packets of those public sessions, anyone can know what their city government is planning to do, and has done, in the name of its citizens,” he emphasized.

For years, and without being required to do so by any state law, the City of Edinburg, through its website, https://cityofedinburg.com, features the full agenda packets of the Edinburg City Council. The full agenda packets of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation are available at https://edinburgedc.com/agendas/.

“Often, the city’s agenda meeting packets are hundreds of pages in length, but any person can see all of the information and materials that are being reviewed, discussed, and proposed to be acted upon by the mayor and city councilmembers,” Ochoa noted. “Just as important, through the Internet, there is no charge to anyone to access this public information.” 

Through its Communications and Media Department, which handles internal and external communications, public relations, marketing and oversees special events for the City of Edinburg, the local governments’ social media resources and policies are explained in more detail.

“The City of Edinburg understands that people communicate through a variety of media. The Communications and Media Department strives to connect with Edinburg residents in as many ways possible including social media. The City of Edinburg regulates the content of its social media pages often and for best social media practices. View the City of Edinburg social media policy here.” 

Ochoa also encourages people to download through the Internet the most recent guides, prepared by the Office of the Texas Attorney General, on the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Public Information Act.

Both publications, which are also free, are available at:

https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open-government

“Edinburg’s and the Edinburg EDC’s Facebook, websites, and other social media resources have proven themselves by providing comprehensive, enriching, constructive, diverse, and interactive news coverage,” Ochoa said. “Through decades of Edinburg mayors and city councilmembers, and with the professionals who also work on behalf of our residents, we continue to meet the highest standards of journalism, especially the ideal, as championed by the Society of Professional Journalists, ‘that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.’”

“Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense at All,”

Patricia Moravec, Assistant Professor of Information, Risk and Operations Management with the McCombs School of Business, along with Randall K. Minas of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Alan R. Dennis of Indiana University, authored the study, “Fake News on Social Media: People Believe What They Want to Believe When it Makes No Sense at All,” published on Tuesday, November 5, 2019, in Management Information Systems Quarterly.

The researchers worked with 80 social media-proficient undergraduate students who first answered 10 questions about their own political beliefs. Each participant was then fitted with an EEG headset. The students were asked to read 50 political news headlines presented as they would appear in a Facebook feed and assess their credibility. 

Forty of the headlines were evenly divided between true and false, with 10 headlines that were clearly true included as controls: “Trump Signs New Executive Order on Immigration” (clearly true), “Nominee to Lead EPA Testifies He’ll Enforce Environmental Laws” (true), “Russian Spies Present at Trump’s Inauguration — Seated on Inauguration Platform” (false).

According to Wikipedia, scientific control is an experiment or observation designed to minimize the effects of variables other than the independent variable. This increases the reliability of the results, often through a comparison between control measurements and the other measurements. Scientific controls are a part of the scientific method

The researchers randomly assigned fake news flags among the 40 non-control headlines to see what effect they would have on the participants’ responses. In late 2016, Facebook incorporated fact-checking into its platform and began flagging certain news articles by noting that an article was “disputed by third-party fact-checkers.” The students rated each headline’s believability, credibility, and truthfulness.

As they worked through the exercise, the participants spent more time and showed significantly more activity in their frontal cortices — the brain area associated with arousal, memory access and consciousness — when headlines supported their beliefs but were flagged as false. These reactions of discomfort indicated cognitive dissonance when headlines supporting their beliefs were marked as untrue.

But this dissonance (inconsistency) was not enough to make participants change their minds. They overwhelmingly said that headlines conforming with their preexisting beliefs were true, regardless of whether they were flagged as potentially fake. The flag did not change their initial response to the headline, even if it did make them pause a moment longer and study it a bit more carefully.

Political affiliation made no difference in their ability to determine what was true or false. 

“People’s self-reported identify as Democrat or Republican didn’t influence their ability to detect fake news,” Moravec said. “And it didn’t determine how skeptical they were about what’s news and what’s not.”

The Facebook environment, it would seem, muddies the waters between fact and fiction. Unlike when people are at work or focused on a goal, they are unable to think very critically when they are in this passive, pleasure-seeking mindset.

“When we’re on social media, we’re passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment,” Moravec said. “We’re avoiding something else.”

The experiment showed that social media users are highly subject to confirmation bias, the unintentional tendency to gravitate toward and process information that is consistent with existing beliefs, she said. 

This can result in decision-making that ignores information that is inconsistent with those beliefs.

“The fact that social media perpetuates and feeds this bias complicates people’s ability to make evidence-based decisions,” she said. “But if the facts that you do have are polluted by fake news that you truly believe, then the decisions you make are going to be much worse.”

For more details about this research, view the McCombs School of Business Big Ideas video interview with the lead author.

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FOUNDATION OF TEXAS

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas strives to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public and protects the liberties of free speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment.

They assist individual citizens, journalists, and government officials through educational seminars, an annual conference and a speakers bureau. They also file briefs in important legal cases addressing open government and freedom of speech and press. 

The Foundation’s FOI Hotline connects Texans with volunteer attorneys who explain open government laws. Their Light of Day project teaches college students how to use public records in their reporting. They are a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.

According to the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, two major state laws in Texas help promote and protect the people’s right to know about the activities of their governments and its elected and appointed leaders.

Texas Public Information Act

Covered Entities

The Texas Public Information Act applies to all governmental bodies, including all boards, commissions, and committees created by the executive or legislative branch. It also may apply to a body that is supported by public funds or that spends public funds. Private organizations that hold records for governmental bodies also are covered. However, private individuals and businesses are not covered even though they supply goods or services through a government contract.

Types of Information

Public information refers to information collected, assembled, produced or maintained in the course of transacting public business. It may be on paper or film or in electronic communications such as emails, Internet postings, text messages or instant messages.

Exceptions

Some information is not open to the public. These types of information are listed as exceptions in the Texas Public Information Act. They include some information in personnel records, pending litigation, competitive bids, trade secrets, real estate deals and certain legal matters involving attorney-client privilege. Attorneys’ fees paid by a governmental body are generally public.

Law Enforcement

Generally, the front page of a police report is public. Records that would hinder the investigation or prosecution of a crime if they are released are exempt from disclosure.

The Judiciary

Information collected and maintained by the judiciary is not covered by the Texas Public Information Act. That information is governed by public access rules set by the Texas Supreme Court and other applicable rules and laws.

Making a Request

Filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act is as simple as asking the government agency in writing for the desired information. The request can be made through a letter or via email or fax. It does not need to contain any particular language, but it’s important to be clear. Try to be specific. This will help produce the information that is sought and can eliminate the need later for narrowing down a request that is too broad. The governmental body is not allowed to ask why the information is being requested.

Charges

A governmental body or agency can charge for copies of the information, but the fee must be reasonable and cannot be used to discourage someone from asking for information. The requester is entitled to an itemized bill if the charge is more than $40. A governmental entity can also waive copying charges. For more information, see the Texas Cost Rules tab in the Resources section of the website for the Freedom of Information Foundation (http://foift.org). To avoid charges, the requester can ask to view the records in person on the premises of the governmental body.

Withholding Information

Public information is supposed to be released “promptly.” There is a misconception that a governmental body or agency has 10 days to release information. The 10-day mark is the deadline for a governmental body if it contends the information is not public, to ask for an attorney general’s decision allowing it to withhold the records. (Texas’ open records law is stronger than those in many other states in that if a governmental entity wants to withhold information, it has to ask the attorney general for permission to do so.) After a ruling is sought, the attorney general then decides within 45 days. The person making the original request can also offer written comments to the attorney general. If a governmental body fails to seek an attorney general decision in time, the information is presumed to be public.

Appealing an Open Records Decision

When the attorney general’s office agrees with a governmental body that information can be withheld from the public, the person making the original request has the option of filing a lawsuit in state district court to attempt to have the information released.

Texas Open Meetings Act

The Texas Open Meetings Act is detailed in Chapter 551 of the Government Code. It states that governmental bodies must hold open meetings unless there is an authorized reason for a closed session, also known as an executive session.

Key provisions of the act are as follow:

Covered Entities

Governing boards, commissions, agencies and other bodies created within the executive and legislative branches of government are subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act. Commissioners courts, city councils, school boards and certain nonprofit corporations providing public services or spending taxpayer money are among the entities covered. Certain property owners’ associations also are subject to the law.

Quorum

A quorum refers to a majority of members of a governing body unless a quorum is defined differently by applicable law or rule or charter of the body. A quorum must be present for the body to take action.
Posting of Notice

The governmental body must give the public notice of the date, time, place, and subject of an upcoming meeting. The notice must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times at least 72 hours before the meeting. In case of an emergency or “urgent public necessity,” a meeting notice or addition to a meeting agenda may be posted at least two hours prior to the meeting. The governmental body must clearly identify the emergency.

Other Exceptions to Posting Law

Boards or commissions with statewide jurisdiction must have their meeting notice posted on the Internet by the secretary of state at least seven days before a meeting. Committees of the Texas Legislature are not subject to the meeting notice rules above. Their rules are set by the Texas House and Senate.

Closed Sessions

Closed, or executive, sessions may be held by a governmental body in certain situations. Executive sessions are permitted when a body is meeting with its attorney on litigation or a settlement offer; deliberating personnel matters; deliberating the purchase or lease of property; discussing certain financial contract negotiations, or discussing deployment of security devices. Several other exceptions to open meetings are also contained in the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Deliberations Between Meetings

Under a new provision of the act that took effect Sept. 1, 2013, members of a governing body are allowed to communicate with one another about public business between meetings if they do so in writing and on a publicly accessible online message board. The message board must be prominently displayed and easy for the public to find on the government entity’s website. Officials may not take action on the message board. That must wait for a posted meeting.

Video Conferencing

The Texas Open Meetings Act now allows for members of a governmental body to attend a public meeting via a video conference call. The head of the board or commission must be physically present in the designated meeting place and the public must be given access to that meeting space. The public must be able to witness the comments and actions of those officials attending the meeting remotely via audio and video equipment and be able to participate via videoconferencing just as they would at a traditional public meeting.

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David A. Díaz contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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