Scottish citizens’ perceptions of the credibility of online political “facts” in the “fake news” era. An exploratory study

Date09 September 2019
Publication Date09 September 2019
AuthorGraeme Baxter,Rita Marcella,Agnieszka Walicka
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Scottish citizensperceptions of
the credibility of online political
factsin the fake newsera
An exploratory study
Graeme Baxter and Rita Marcella
School of Creative and Cultural Business,
Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK, and
Agnieszka Walicka
Aberdeenshire Libraries, Oldmeldrum, UK
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present the results of a study that explored public perceptions
of the credibility of facts and figurescontained within five social media posts produced by political parties
in Scotland.
Design/methodology/approach The study consisted of an online survey conducted in Spring 2017
(n¼538). Respondents were asked to gauge the reliability of factscontained within the posts, to provide
reasons for their answers, and to indicate how they might go about confirming or debunking the figures.
Findings Less than half the sample believed the postscontent would be reliable. Credibility perceptions
were influenced by various factors, including: a lack of cited sources; concerns about bias or spin; a lack of
detail, definitions or contextual information; personal political allegiance and trust; negative campaign
techniques; personal experience of policy issues; and more intuitive judgements. Only small numbers
admitted that they would not know how to find out more about the issues or would be disinclined to look
further. The majority appeared confident in their own abilities to find further information, yet were vague in
describing their search strategies.
Originality/value Relatively little empirical research has been conducted exploring the perceived
credibility of political or government information online. It is believed that this is the first such study to have
specifically investigated the Scottish political arena.
Keywords Scotland, Credibility, Information behaviour, Political parties, Fake news, Alternative facts
Paper type Research paper
In November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truthas its international word of
the year, defining it as an adjective relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective
facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal
belief. Oxford noted that it had become associated with a particular phrase, post-truth
politics, and that much of its use in 2016 had been related to the UKs European Union
membership referendum (Brexit), or to the US presidential campaign (Oxford Dictionaries,
2016). In total, 12 months later, Collins Dictionary named fake newsas its 2017 word of the
year. Defined as false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news
reporting, Collins also highlighted the words relationship with the 2016 US election and
subsequent allegations about President Trumps links with Russia (Collins Dictionary,
2017). Internationally, then, concerns about the provision of false and unreliable information
have become a major part of the political and media discourse in recent years. In the UK, one
consequence has been an 18-month public inquiry into disinformation and fake news,
conducted by the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee,
whose final report concluded that fake newsposes a real threat to the very fabric of our
democracy(DCMS Committee, 2019, p. 5).
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 75 No. 5, 2019
pp. 1100-1123
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-10-2018-0161
Received 11 October 2018
Revised 19 February 2019
Accepted 24 February 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
In Scotland, on 18 September 2014, the Scottish independence referendum took place,
where the electorate was asked the dichotomous Yes/No question, Should Scotland be an
independent country?Although not as prominent as during the 2016 Brexit and US
presidential campaigns, accusations of deliberate misinformation and post-truth politicking
were raised throughout and after the 2014 Scottish independence campaign, and aimed at
both sides of the debate (e.g. Torrance, 2012; Maxwell, 2014; Settle, 2015). Furthermore, a
study of Scottish votersonline information behaviour, conducted by the current authors in
the weeks immediately preceding the Scottish referendum (Baxter and Marcella, 2017),
found an overwhelming need to obtain reliable factsfrom authoritative and expert voices;
yet some uncertainty amongst participants as to their personal capacity to evaluate the
reliability of information provided by political actors. With these points in mind, and given
the discourse around fake newsand alternative facts, the current authors decided to
build upon that previous research and further explore citizensperceptions of the reliability
of information presented online as factsby Scottish political actors during the 2017 local
and general election campaigns in the UK. This paper reports on one element of this
research an online survey of over 500 members of the public. A companion paper
(Marcella et al., 2019) discusses a series of 23 electronically assisted interviews also
conducted as part of the study.
Theoretical underpinning
In the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web became increasingly available to the masses,
the information science community began to question the veracity of some of the
information available on the internet, and consider how the public at large might best
evaluate online information. Key concerns here revolved around the lack of bibliographic
structure, editorial control or peer review of web-based information (e.g. Brandt, 1996).
Some early observers suggested that the criteria used to evaluate traditional, printed
sources (i.e. authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency and coverage) could equally be
applied to websites (e.g. Rettig, 1996; Hahn, 1997). Others believed that additional criteria,
related specifically to the new online environment (e.g. levels of interactivity, the existence of
a search engine, additional software/hardware requirements and page loading speeds),
should also be considered (e.g. Gurn, 1995; Stoker and Cooke, 1995; Collins, 1996).
These checklist models, however, were not without their critics. In 2004, for example,
Meola argued that evaluative checklists were difficult to implement in practice, and that
such mechanistic approaches were at odds with critical thinking. Indeed, drawing on the
communication, psychology and humancomputer interaction disciplines, a significant
body of literature emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century that focused instead
on the cognitive aspects of evaluating the credibility of online information (for more
extensive reviews of the literature, see Rieh and Danielson, 2007; Choi and Stvilia, 2015).
From this body of work, it is perhaps fair to say that six theoretical frameworks have
become recognised as most influential, although these have largely been applied to the
assessment of entire websites, rather than to individual facts or snippets of information.
First, chronologically, Fritch and Cromwell (2001) drew on Wilsons (1983) concept of
cognitive authority to propose an iterative model, whereby the credibility of a given body of
online information is judged using four distinct classesor filters(document, author,
institution and affiliations), which then combine to form an overall assessment of authority.
Wathen and Burkells (2002) model (itself based on a synthesis of literature) also
conceptualised credibility evaluation as an iterative process, where the user first rates the
credibility of the medium, based primarily on surfacecharacteristics such as a websites
structure and appearance. The second stagethen involves the user applying more traditional
evaluative criteria to both the source (in terms of its trustworthiness and expertise) and the
message (in termsof its relevance, currency, etc.).A third, content evaluationstage involves

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