What are “data voids” and how can we avoid falling into one?

Data Literacy Uncertainty and Misinformation

Data voids occur when there isn’t enough high-quality information to counter misleading information on a topic. Data voids are common in the context of breaking news and can lead people to believe the misinformation when they do an online search.

Who hasn’t done their own searching online to find out more about the latest health news? Or political news? Or celebrity gossip? It’s easy, often tempting, and if anything, the stranger or more urgent the news, the more likely we are to dig into it. But this is exactly when we need to be careful, and patient.

Conventional wisdom suggests that searching for information on breaking news should help correct any misinformation. Unfortunately, the opposite may be true. In the days soon after news is published, a data void, or lack of sufficient high-quality information available, can create the ideal situation for misinformation to grow. In data voids, low-quality news sources, trolls, and those looking to spread misinformation fill the online space with additional misleading content. This can lead people to believe the misinformation.

💡 Fun fact: the term ‘data void’ was coined just in 2018 by Michael Golebiewski and dannah boyd to describe the situation when there is high demand for information but low supply of credible content.

In fact, recent research conducted has shown that searching online to counter misinformation is more likely to make a person believe it, even if they were initially skeptical – the opposite of what you might expect! This is due to data voids that often exist when news first breaks. In these experiments, participants were asked to rate articles before and after conducting an online search during a data void. Among people who initially correctly identified a false or misleading article, nearly 1 in 6 (18%) changed their minds after online research and incorrectly rated the article as true. In comparison, among people who correctly identified an article as true, 1 in 17 (6%) changed their rating incorrectly to false after an online search. Fortunately, over time, the data void for a specific topic can go away as online information is vetted by experts and fact-checkers, and more reliable content gradually gets published.

So the question then is, is it even possible to do your own research about a breaking news topic online? The answer is yes, if we keep these tips in mind:

✅ Remember that much of the information available online is not from experts in the field, and those wanting to spread misinformation take advantage of data voids.

✅ Wait a few days before any extensive online search about a breaking news topic so the information is fact-checked and misleading information can be identified and corrected. Yes, this runs counter to our natural instinct!

Be careful with search terms. There are resources to help with smart searching.

✅ Use the tools provided by search and social media sites to help you determine the quality and credibility of the information. For example, sites often provide content advisories tags for recent or less reliable information, or context on the source of the information.

Given the amount of new information and breaking news shared daily, data voids will continue to promote the spread of misinformation. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this trap and find high-quality and credible information. A favorite refrain with Those Nerdy Girls when breaking news hits has always been “Let’s wait a beat”. This allows time for some of the data voids to fill with reliable content before we synthesize the information for our readers. We encourage you to wait a moment as well!

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