Putting a Label on It

We know that news can be toxic. The state of affairs is so bad that many of the media sources we rely on for information have been demonstrated to be extremely harmful to our society. Misinformation, in its many forms, leads to polarization, the destruction of democracy, the engendering of hate and the devaluing of social capital. It is – quite likely – one of the most destructive forces we face today.

To make matters worse, a study conducted by Ben Lyons from the University of Utah found that we’re terrible at spotting misinformation, yet many of us think we can’t be fooled. Seventy five percent of us overestimate our ability to spot fake news by as much at 22 percentile points. And the more overconfident we are, the more likely we are to share false news.

Given the toxic effects of unreliable news reporting, it was only natural that – sooner or later – someone would come up with the logical idea of putting a warning label on it. And that’s exactly what NewsGuard does. Using “trained journalists” to review the most popular news platforms (they say the cover 95% of our news source engagement) they give each source a badge, ranging from green to red, showing its reliability. In a recent report, they highlighted some of the U.S.’s biggest misinformation culprits (NewsMax.com, TheGatewayPundit.com and the Federalist.com) and some of the sources that are most reliable (MSNBC.com, NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and NPR.com).

But here’s the question. Just because you slap a warning label on toxic news sources, will it have any effect? That’s exactly what a group of researchers at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics wanted to find out. And the answer is both yes and no.

Kevin Aslett, lead author of the paper, said,

“While our study shows that, overall, credibility ratings have no discernible effect on misperceptions or online news consumption behavior of the average user, our findings suggest that the heaviest consumers of misinformation — those who rely on low-credibility sites — may move toward higher-quality sources when presented with news reliability ratings.”

Kevin Aslett, NYU Center for Social Media and Politics

This is interesting. In essence, this study is saying that if you run into the odd unreliable news source and you see a warning label, it will probably have no effect. But if you make a steady diet of unreliable news and see warning label after warning label, it may eventually sink in and cause you to improve your sources for news consumption. This seems to indicate warning labels might have a cumulative effect. The more you’re exposed to them, the more effective they become.

We are literally of two minds – one driven by ration and one by emotion. Warning labels try to appeal to one mind, but our likelihood to ignore them comes from our other mind. The effectiveness of these labels depends on which mind is in the driver’s seat. There is a wide spectrum of circumstances that may bring you face to face with a warning label and the effectiveness of that label may depend on some sort of cognitive “Russian roulette” – a game of odds to determine if the label will impact you. If this is the case, it makes sense that the more you see a warning label, the greater the odds that – at least one time – you might be of a mind to pay attention to it.

Up in Smoke

This might help explain the so-so track record of warning labels in other arenas. Probably the longest trial run of warning labels has been on cigarette packages. The United States started requiring these labels in 1966. In 2001, my own country – Canada – was the first country in the world to introduce graphic warning labels; huge and horrible pictures of the effects of smoking plastered across every pack of smokes.

This past week, we in Canada went one better. Again, we’re going to be the first country in the world to require warning labels on each and every cigarette. Apparently, our government has bought into the exposure effect of warning labels – more is better.

It seems to be working. In 1965 the smoking rate in Canada was 50%. In 2020 it was 13%.

But a recent study (Strong, Pierce, Pulvers et al) showed that if smokers aren’t ready to quit, warning labels may have “decreased positive perceptions of cigarettes associated with branded cigarette packs but without clearly increasing health concerns. They also increased quitting cognitions but did not affect either cigarette cessation or consumption levels.”

Like I said – just because you get through to one mind doesn’t mean you’ll have any luck with the other.

Side Effects May Include….

Perhaps the most interesting case of warnings in the consumer marketplace are with prescription drugs. Because the United States is one of the few places in the world (New Zealand is the other one) that can advertise prescription drugs direct to the consumer, the Food and Drug Administration has mandated that ads must include a fair balance of rewards and risks. Advertisers being advertisers, the rewards take up much of the ad, with sunlight infused shots of people enjoying life thanks to the miracles of the drug in question. But, at the end, there is a laundry list of side effects read in a voice over, typically at breakneck pace in a deadly monotone.

It’s this example that highlights perhaps the main issue with warning labels; they require a calculation of risk vs reward. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t need a warning label. Nobody needs to tell us not to drink battery acid. That’s all risk and no reward. If there’s a label on it, it’s probably on something we want to do but know we shouldn’t.

A study of the effectiveness of these warnings in DTC prescription ads found they become less effective because of something called argument dilution effect. Ads that only include the worst side effects are more effective than ads that include every potential side effect, even the minor ones. Hence the laundry list. If a drug could cause both sudden heart attacks and minor skin rashes, our mind tends to let these things cancel each other out.

This effect is an example of the heuristic nature of our risk vs reward decision making. It needs to operate quickly, so it relies on the irrational, instinctive part of our neural circuitry. We don’t take the time to weigh everything logically – we make a gut call. Marketers know the science behind this and continually use it to their advantage.

Warning labels are an easy legislative fix to try to plug this imperfectly human loophole. It seems to make sense, but it doesn’t really address the underlying factors. Given enough time and enough exposure, they can shift behaviors, but we shouldn’t rely on them too much.

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