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The Focus is on University Attention Span Research

Recent research conducted by Professor Alexander Stewart of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews has found that inattentive readers are more likely to consume “fake news.”


The study used Game Theory, a form of economic analysis, to understand how online news readers (consumers) interact with creators of fake news (producers). It found that distributors of misinformation exploit short attention spans. Factors including tiredness, laziness, and being overwhelmed increase the likelihood of clicking on misinformation, and a habit can be formed.


Misinformation, known colloquially as “fake news,” refers to false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive. “Fake news” is largely political in nature and the phenomenon has gained more prominence in the political field with the rise of social media.


Professor Stewart said of the study, “We know false news stories can spread more quickly than factual content and we know how damaging they can be to public discourse and trust in democratic institutions.” He continued that “much of the previous research in this area was empirical in nature with very little formal modelling,” suggesting the study had broken new ground on the topic.


Similar studies have suggested consumers of false content actively look for stories that align with their beliefs, but this study demonstrates that the assumption that consumers have full agency over their consumption is false.


The study also found that this is particularly prevalent when online media production has a clear focus, such as in an election year, and during these periods those who normally ‘seek truth’ are more likely to use news sources unfamiliar to them. This research is especially timely in 2024, as 50 countries are set to have elections, including the UK’s general election. 


The study was co-authored by Antonio Arechar of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico, David Rand of MIT, and Joshua Plotkin of the University of Pennsylvania. 


Image by Richard Law


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