Putting A Label On It

We know that news can be toxic. Misinformation, in its many forms, leads to polarization, the destruction of democracy, the engendering of hate and the devaluing of social capital. It is 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 someone would come up with the logical idea of putting a warning label on it. And that’s exactly what NewsGuard says it does. Using “trained journalists” to review the most popular news platforms (the company claims to cover 95% of our news source engagement), it gives each source a badge, ranging from green to red, showing its reliability.



A recent report highlighted some of the U.S.’s biggest misinformation culprits (, and the and some of the sources that are most reliable (,, and

But here’s the question. Will slapping a warning label on toxic news sources 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 study, said it “shows that, overall, credibility ratings have no discernible effect on misperceptions or online news consumption behavior of the average user.” Still, “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."

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.

As humans, we are literally of two minds -- one driven by rationality and one by emotion. Warning labels try to appeal to one mind, but our likelihood to ignore them comes from our other mind. 

There is a wide spectrum of circumstances that may bring you face to face with a warning label when 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 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 every individual 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.”

As I said: Just because you get through to one mind doesn’t mean you’ll have any luck with the others.

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 directly 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 voiceover, 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. So if there’s a label on a product, it’s probably on something we want to use but know we shouldn’t.

A study of the effectiveness of these warnings in D2C prescription ads found they become less effective because of something called the argument dilution effect. Consumers are more concerned about side effects when they view ads that only include the worst of those effects. They tend to discount side effects when viewing ads that include every potential side effect, even the minor ones. If a drug could cause both sudden heart attacks and minor skin rashes, our mind tends to let these things cancel each other out. Hence the laundry list approach in a typical ad.

This 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, warning labels can shift behaviors, but we shouldn’t rely on them too much.

1 comment about "Putting A Label On It".
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  1. Dane Claussen from Nonprofit Sector News, June 16, 2022 at 6:58 p.m.

    I'm all for independent nonprofits, media critics, and others rating and ranking the news media. Another thing that would help is if journalists would either stop quoting and paraphrasing individuals who are sources when they are unreliable, or correct them in real time. Journalists were supposed to learn this lesson after Joe McCarthy, Vietnam, etc., but they seem to have forgotten it or never learned it, especially TV--which will put just about any liar or idiot on the air.

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