You Are What You Read…

Remember when nutritionists admonished us with the phrase “you are what you eat”? A recent report from Harvard’s Kennedy school has modernized it, warning that–in our era of pervasive propaganda and misinformation–we are what we read (or otherwise access).

The study explored the media consumption of participants, and the degree to which the unreliability of that media left them with inaccurate beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccination. The researchers found that “the average bias and reliability of participants’ media consumption are significant predictors of their perceptions of false claims about COVID-19 and vaccination.”

I know–your first thought was “duh.” Did we really need a study showing that people who depend on garbage media believe ridiculous things? Wouldn’t logic tell us that?

Still, what seems self-evident can often prove less than conclusive, so confirmation of that logic in a rigorous study is important. In addition, the study confirmed politically-relevant differences in media consumption and credulity between Republicans and Democrats.

Here’s their summary of the study:

  • We surveyed 3,276 U.S. adults, applying Ad Fontes Media’s (2023) ratings of media bias and reliability to measure these facets of participants’ preferred news sources. We also probed their perceptions of inaccurate claims about COVID-19 and vaccination.
  • We found participants who tend to vote for Democrats—on average—consume less biased and more reliable media than those who tend to vote for Republicans. We found these (left-leaning) participants’ media reliability moderates the relationship between their media’s bias and their degree of holding false beliefs about COVID-19 and vaccination.
  • Unlike left-leaning media consumers, right-leaning media consumers’ misinformed beliefs seem largely unaffected by their news sources’ degree of (un)reliability. 
  • This study introduces and investigates a novel means of measuring participants’ selected news sources: employing Ad Fontes’s (2023) media bias and media reliability ratings. It also suggests the topic of COVID-19, among many other scientific fields of recent decades, has fallen prey to the twin risks of a politicized science communication environment and accompanying group-identity-aligned stances so often operating in the polarized present. 

The researchers found that the news-seeking and news-avoiding behaviors of the participants confirmed “the longstanding concern that those who embrace—and subsequently seek out—misinformation, even if inadvertently, constitute a group at risk of endangering their own and others’ health.”

In a country sharply divided along partisan lines, the implications rather obviously go further.

As any student of history–especially the history of journalism–can attest, America has always produced biased sources of information. What is different now, thanks to the Internet and social media, is its ubiquity–and greatly increased political motivation to seek out confirmatory “information.”

Other studies tell us that people who want to believe X do not necessarily change their belief in X when confronted with evidence that X is inaccurate. The Harvard study found that anti-vaccine attitudes were “tenacious and challenging to counter, unyielding to evidence, and bolstered by persuasive anti-vaccine messaging—which is not difficult to find and immerse oneself in. In the COVID-19 context, several identity groups appear to have engaged in this immersion.”

Some research has suggested that confrontation with contrary facts can lead to what is called a “backfire effect,” causing people to double down and become even more stubborn in their original beliefs. (Facebook found, for example, that warning users that an article was false caused people to share that article even more.) Other research has suggested that fact-checking, if done properly, can often successfully correct misperceptions. But…

First, facts and scientific evidence are not the most powerful and easy way to encourage people to abandon false or inaccurate beliefs and perspectives. Second, people embrace fake news, misinformation and disinformation because of their beliefs, even if they can be proven wrong, exercising, in many cases, a demonstration of tribal loyalty. Third, engaging in a dialogue in a non-threatening manner to avoid defense mechanisms from activating with personal stories has a greater likelihood of success.

Even when encounters with the facts might actually cause a reconsideration, it turns out that the algorithms used by social media platforms increasingly shield users from information they might find uncongenial. Those “likes” we register act as guidelines used to feed us more of the posts we’ll “like,” and shield us from contrary perspectives or facts that might debunk our preferred prejudices.

And now, the deepfakes are coming.

On the one hand, several sites are available that evaluate the credibility of the sources we consult. On the other hand, no one can force people to visit those sites or believe their ratings.

it has never been easier to avoid uncongenial realities and evade critical thinking…..


  1. The fact that misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are being used by the true enemies of America-Russia, China, and N Korea-and is being spread on the social media and by our elected officials at every level of government is frightening.
    I would recommend Anne Applebaum’s feature in last months Atlantic Monthly as an excellent source to help understand the issue and its effect on the world of today.
    As always, the question is “what are you going to do about it?”

  2. We need to know what the opposition is saying and doing, by whatever means, what is lacking is direct confrontation (or disclaimers) of lies with no source of facts provided. Being totally deaf, I must rely on closed captioning which is too often flawed or slow in beginning, making it confusing as to which person is saying what. Misspellings and garbled captions slow keeping track of the subject at issue. MSNBCs closed captioning is one of the culprits using slow and flawed closed captioning, with stops and starts of cc) and one of the most important sources of political information. Contacting the FCC to report these problems often requires too much information to document and keep up with the problematic reporting, blatant discrimination. We deserve the same credibility as the hearing public, whichever side they are on.

    I am not the only hearing impaired or deaf person in the United States who is valiantly struggling to understand and keep up with what is happening in the midst of chaos which is almost impossible to understand when clearly written information is provided. Indianapolis’ NBC Channel 13 consistently types Indianapolis as “India”; a recent shooting report with a victim transported to Eskenazi Hospital was actually reported as “transported to ASK A NAZI”, the word hospital was omitted. No, I didn’t attempt to report this to the FCC, it would have taken too long to list their required background and basic information or provide a video of the actual report.

  3. Historically some of the most heinous parts of history were caused by disinformation. And, as in the dark ages, lack of information. One example, The witch burnings and executions were so heinously zealous, because, the use of disinformation and lack of information, marginal if any education or intellect, drove those who adhered to that sort of thing basically insane! They saw witches around every corner, and they killed them. Kind of goes along with how folks were desecrating the newly interred in their graves, because, they thought certain individuals were vampires.

    All very convenient for the power brokers, it kept the inept occupied while they did their dirt right in front of them.

    Another example was the Jewish Holocaust in Germany. Granted, there were more than just Jews that were rounded up for concentration camps, but the largest group, as everybody knows, was Jewish. They were accused of witchcraft and all sorts of other nefarious activities that would make the average person miserable.

    They’re always has to be a reason for someone’s misery, except the one that they see in the mirror. And so, the cycle continues, throughout history, it continues. Those who are marginal in their intellect, and those who use that particular trait to manipulate a quite significant portion of society.

    This is not something new, this has been going on since time immemorial!

  4. John Surg, In Nazi Germany, people really did have something to be miserable about. Post WW1 economic sanctions destroyed the German economy and functioning government, but the manufactured blame targeted jews. I think in today’s information environment, the perceived misery is almost more manufactured than it is real. History gives us a pattern on how to manipulate people but social media and right wing media gives us new powerful and easy tools to make people believe it.

  5. A recent example of “sample” news reporting by local news outlets, mostly TV channels, as so few actually read papers or listen to the radio for news, was the recently reopened harbor in Baltimore after the much reported bridge strike that closed it in March.
    I had to really search for any local news outlet reporting that the harbor reopened in less that 100 days. The efforts of federal (Sec of Transportation, Pete Buttigeig), state and local agencies, trade unions and private businesses all cooperated! Imagine that!
    Nowhere was there mention that the MAGAs in Congress want to delay rebuilding the collapsed bridge until insurance claims are settled among other delaying tactics as it is “too expensive”.
    Not a word on a significantly rapid and coordinated response to a emergency by the government at all levels. Imagine if tfg’s selected loyalist/minions had been in charge.
    IMO, this kind of selective reporting is done by design. Gannett and SInclair jointly control most of the media in Central Indiana. Is it any wonder we keep getting the likes of Micah Beckwith!
    Re JoAnn’s comments about closed captioning. I use it often for different reasons, but agree that the gargled and often very slow captioning make using it at time very frustrating. And I am not hearing impaired. The complaint process is way too cumbersome and should be actively monitored by the vender not the customer.

  6. JoAnn, I’m wondering if there are any organizations that are fighting for better captioning or working on improving your plight?

    I have maintained for years that closely held beliefs are impervious to facts. This seemed clear to me long before we had social media and algorithms. It’s probably because of my 12 years of Catholic school. I witnessed so much intransigence, not in my classmates, but definitely in the priests and sisters. Not all were bad at accepting new information, but enough were to make an impression.

  7. Wasn’t it just last week that Zuckerberg and other social media CEOs were “grilled” by a Senate committee regarding damage they’ve caused to young people?

    I’m confident those CEOs all feel very guilty about the damage their pursuit of extreme wealth has caused and they are now working at a feverish pace to prevent further harm to our youth because there is no way the Senate Judiciary committee members would have called all of those important campaign donors to DC just to testify and make it look like they are going to demand change.

  8. reliving joe goebbels via internet/news,ax/pox/that app and, damn did i say we are reliving it,1932..If my doc said get the jab,I damn sure wouldnt argue about it. There was a article awhile back, seems one theory of the origin. past pre history and chinas industrial rev in the past two decades. may have unearthed a cousin to covid, from a possible settlement in china, that was never recorded, and may have died from the origins. If anyone did a achaeological dig, maybe some forethought needed.. also, anthrax is still prevalent in north west Mn. seems grazing cows in some fields after it rains may release the pathogin..

  9. I saw a “man-on-the-street” interview the other day where the commentator/interviewer “debated” a white man wearing a bucket hat. The interviewer asked pertinent questions and the man gave right-wing meme answers. When asked to produce evidence for his comments, the interviewee remained silent. When finally asked what he would do, the man on the street – without batting an eye – said that Joe Biden should be killed for treason, because he “believed” the election was stolen – again without a line of proof.

    THAT is what disinformation creates in the weakest minds among us. Most of the people contributing to this blog understand rational thought and why proof and evidence are most important to deciding issues. But those who operate on a “beliefs-only” operating philosophy, tend to be easily swayed toward any nonsense that their “sources” want them to go; sheep heading to the slaughter. Why? Power, money and influence; the usual stuff of the primitive mind of man.

  10. Facing a beleaguered staff working with remnants and followers of organized gangs in Hollywood (mid 80’s) … I could see in their faces heavily ladened morale and exhaustion. My staff were strong, resilient, motivated … but wearing down from the relentless onslaught of crime pervasive on every street corner.

    I stood and said to them what I found difficult to say, but I believed in my heart needed to be said: “There are winners, losers and savables. Winners work with us to build a safe neighborhood so that the younger brothers and sisters of gang members can grow and become contributors to society. Losers do not even meet us halfway. They have chosen the dark side. Most of the losers will not see their nineteenth birthday and have accepted that short lived destiny. In a small space of a much larger more resourceful world, we live and work with limited resources … let them go. However, most of the youth we see are savable. You know who they are. They meet us halfway looking for lifelines. Don’t fret over the ‘bad wolf’ at the gate. We feed the ‘good wolf’. Never doubt that the work we do is lifesaving.”

    What we choose to read feeds either the good wolf or the bad wolf at the gate. Never let the pursuit of perfection become the enemy of what is good. Be confident in the path you have chosen. Save what you can essential to a good life in the space that you have. Let everything else go.

    Live and let live.

  11. “News-seeking and news-avoiding” are interesting terms that capture the motivation of two groups of people who take in news for different reasons.

    What would inspire people to purposely avoid finding out a particular fact? Professional media producers live off their ability to reliably ascertain the answer.

    As a society, we have been moved away from living lives of purpose, like survival, for instance, to lives of comfort, pampering, safety, isolation, entertainment, and reinforcement. We’ve come to expect the world to be as we want it, not for us to have to fit into reality. Life has become monetized and fungible.

    That did not happen suddenly, but I have seen it growing over the past eight decades. We are the crops that others sow to gather the wealth that we produce.

    We’ve been led to domestication.

  12. Dan, ” History gives us a pattern on how to manipulate people but social media and right wing media gives us new powerful and easy tools to make people believe it.” Yes, and manipulating people is what advertisers do, and the Nazis modeled their propaganda on American advertising, they acknowledged.
    We are being attacked with misinformation, and I’m sure I’m not the first to call it a type of warfare.
    With the recent agreement between Russia and N.Korea, I expect we will see even this become more intense.

  13. JD made a comment about IndyStar or the Gannett-owned (actually owned by Softbank) newspaper. I googled to see what the bias is for IndyStar:

    1) Readers of the IndyStar said it was left-leaning.
    2) Ad Fontes rated it credible and middle-biased.

    I think it is right-leaning with low credibility, mainly because of what it doesn’t print versus what it does print. Indiana is one of the dirtiest, most polluted states in the Union, and it is also run entirely by the GOP. The level of corruption is off the charts.

    Ad Fontes is mainly used for corporate purposes, so the marketing folks know in advance where they should place their ads for target marketing. As I mentioned with IndyStar, how will the analysts verify what was written in the newswire services and papers like the WaPo and NY Times? How will they verify their credibility? How will they assess stories that don’t make it into the newspapers?

    If the newspapers and media in this country were truth-seeking or reliable sources of information, there would be little bias. Most of the media would be center or neutral. This would also destroy the politicization in this country because politicians would be held accountable for their lies. We don’t have anywhere close to this in the US—the Fourth Estate died a long time ago.

    We have propaganda. It is skewed toward the oligarchy, which owns the papers/media, etc. Period.

    Last point, Ad Fontes doesn’t rank social media sources like Facebook and X. However, every news source on their rating chart has Facebook and X pages to disseminate their stories to readers. Even Joe Biden has a TikTok channel to send propaganda messages to our youth. Social media isn’t bad or good; it’s just a medium.

  14. The third point surprised me a little, at least at first.

    “Unlike left-leaning media consumers, right-leaning media consumers’ misinformed beliefs seem largely unaffected by their news sources’ degree of (un)reliability.”

    Why not? It seems to me that it may be because the group is more dogmatic in their beliefs, perhaps at least partly because the group fundamentally (pun intended) may be more religious. The information they encounter has less impact on their beliefs. This would also explain why the “backfire effect” is so prevalent. A presentation of incongruent facts is essentially an attack on their core beliefs. The attack _must_ be rebuffed. Their beliefs must not be malleable; they should not be re-evaluated. These are risky activities, and as such, must be avoided.

    A lot of this just comes back to fear. If there were only some way to engage with these people that did not immediately cause their fight (or flight, I suppose, though it mostly seems to be fight) reflex. It’s not just about building a relationship first, either, given how even families can be split terribly. It may surely be part of it, though. In any case, I think that is the key problem to be solved.

  15. There’s “reading” as in paragraphs and pages and then there’s today’s “reading” in 240 characters or sound or video bytes. The difference is called literacy…now nearly gone and going further in the young.

  16. This is a bit askew of today’s topic, yet it is quite current and still quite topical for the times and with regard to the issue of consulting reliable sources of information.

    Once again, Robert Reich nails it.
    Without intervention, regulation, and limitations set by the many, greed and tyranny of the few will cause capitalism to self-destruct. Here we go again.

  17. JoAnn, I share your frustration with closed captioning. First I would suggest that you contact the TV station (or network) about the inferior performance of the cc. Sadly most cc is done via “live captioning,” where a stenographer types out what is being said “on the fly.” The experience and even the educational background of the stenographer have everything to do with the accuracy of the cc. I can’t say whether one outlet or another is better at producing their cc but nothing improves unless we point out their errors. Local TV may be better at cc than networks since most of the news copy the anchors are reading on a TelePrompter is fed into a cc encoder. As long as the ‘Prompter operator feeds the copy at a speed the anchors can read, it works well. You may see some anchors holding a small remote as they read. They are manually controlling the speed of their copy and also the rate of cc display. It gets rough when someone does live captioning of a live event. That’s a challenge even for experienced captioners. We get into trouble when less-experienced stenographers write all of the live captions. You’ve probably seen them back up on air to correct a name or other miss-spell; it doesn’t look good. Be the squeaky wheel; tell the originator that poor captions are unacceptable. Reporting to the FCC is kind of a last resort, because they’re not staffed to address thousands of inquiries. But if a station blows off the problem and does nothing, it’s time to let Big Brother know about it.

  18. Norris – the last sentence in your comment “Live and Let Live” is exactly how we should all believe. Any suggestions for how we can change the minds and stop the actions of christian Nationalists that are taking over the Indiana state legislature?

  19. I would think the way you type in your information to Google determines to a large amount what information sources you get from the algorithm. Just like the headlines that people make are intent on catching the attention of a specific type of reader. Add to that, if there are specific sources that you tend to “rely on” for the truth your more apt to continue reading them than you are to seek out different sources that may have different relative information.

  20. Suzanne,

    Congrats! You get the “conspiracy theory of the week” award – and it’s not Friday yet!

  21. Peggy and Gerald Paonessa; thanks for your comments. It is required by local channels to complain about cc that you document day, date, program, exact time frame(s), length of problem and other specifics. Submit that to the local channel Administrator who forwards the information to their Legal Departments, all in other states, and wait for a response. This usually takes a few months; the worst problem I reported was in 2003-2004 era, a full day of severe storms and actual tornado touchdowns in my area, one friend lost their home and all contents. NOT ONE CHANNEL HAD CAPTIONING; all programming was preempted for weather coverage by one channel, all responses from every Legal Department were that full closed captioning had been provided by all channels that day.

    Closed captioning is activated on the actual TV; programs and ads which are captioned all provide it automatically. This includes captioned movies on Video, DVD, Blue Ray, DVR, Netflix and all other TV viewing. I now have 2 cable channels which the black background is a large box which covers the entire center of the TV, the over-layered lines of captioning somehow repaired themselves on several channels but now the proper background with captioning runs across the entire screen in proper place. FCC wants all of that fully documented individually for every channel and every program and videos if possible. And so it goes! I truly am “what I read”, garbled and confused.

  22. It’s egregious when politicians/government officials skew essential facts to cater to a fear-based belief system for control. How the trump administration handled the covid pandemic is a sad/tragic example. Trying to trump the experts like Fauci and make him the scape goat for the negative outcomes interfered with actual progress of combating the disease. Magas encouraged distrust and rejection of expertise was/is tragic.
    Authoritarian groups tend to herd together to combat their fears and take their info/ from their leaders. When those leaders’ politicians’ and government officials intentionally mislead for their own agendas using mass media, they need to be held accountable.

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