22 August 2020

New study: Eyes linger less on 'fake news' headlines

Computer science

A new study from the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University reports that people spend a little less time looking at 'fake news' headlines than to factual ones — knowledge that could make it easier to sort through fake news.

fake news telefon
Researchers placed 55 different test subjects in front of a screen to read 108 news headlines. A third of the headlines were fake. Photo: Getty

The term 'fake news' has been a part of our vocabulary since the 2016 US presidential election. As the amount of fake news in circulation grows larger and larger, particularly in the United States, it often spreads like wildfire. Subsequently, there is an ever-increasing need for fact-checking and other solutions to help people navigate the oceans of factual and fake news that surround us.

Help may be on the way, via an interdisciplinary field where eye-tracking technology and computer science meet. A study by University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University researchers shows that people's eyes react differently to factual and false news headlines.

Eyes spend a bit less time on fake headlines

Researchers placed 55 different test subjects in front of a screen to read 108 news headlines. A third of the headlines were fake. The test subjects were assigned a so-called ‘pseudo-task’ of assessing which of the news items was the most recent. What they didn't know, was that some of the headlines were fake. Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers analyzed how much time each person spent reading the headlines and how many fixations the person per headline.

"We thought that it would be interesting to see if there's a difference in the way people read news headlines, depending on whether the headlines are factual or false. This has never been studied. And, it turns out that there is indeed a statistically significant difference," says PhD fellow and lead author Christian Hansen, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science. 

His colleague and co-author from the same department, PhD fellow Casper Hansen, adds:

"The study demonstrated that our test subjects' eyes spent less time on false headlines and fixated on them a bit less compared with the headlines that were true. All in all, people gave fake news headlines a little less visual attention, despite their being unaware that the headlines were fake."

The computer scientists can’t explain for the difference, nor do they dare make any guesses. Nevertheless, they were surprised by the result.

The researchers used the results to create an algorithm that can predict whether a news headline is fake based on eye movements.

Could support fact-checking

As a next step, the researchers would like to examine whether it is possible to measure the same differences in eye movements on a larger scale, beyond the lab – preferably using ordinary webcams or mobile phone cameras. It will, of course, require that people allow for access to their cameras.

The two computer scientists imagine that eye-tracking technology could eventually help with the fact-checking of news stories, all depending upon their ability to collect data from people's reading patterns. The data could come from news aggregator website users or from the users of other sources, e.g., Feedly and Google News, as well as from social media, like Facebook and Twitter, where the amount of fake news is large as well.

"Professional fact-checkers in the media and organizations need to read through lots of material just to find out what needs to be fact-checked. A tool to help them prioritize material could be of great help," concludes Christian Hansen.


  • Researchers selected 108 headlines from thelocal.dk, a news website that publishes Danish news in English. The headings were selected on the basis of the following criteria: (a) headline content should be widely known to the public, (b) the headlines should be formulated in roughly the same tone (e.g., no clickbait), (c) headlines were most likely not to provoke strong emotional responses.
  • The researchers altered some of the headlines to make them fake by changing individual words, such as by substituting in the word "worst" in the headline: "Copenhagen still worst bicycle city in the world". They ensured that the headlines remained plausible and sounded natural.
  • All 108 headings in the experiment had a fairly uniform composition, text level and length.
  • The 55 test subjects were 19–33 years old, with a fair distribution of women and men. All participants agreed to participate in the trial and allowed for their eye movements to be tracked.
  • The study was conducted by Christian Hansen, Casper Hansen, Jakob Grue Simonsen, Stephen Alstrup and Christina Lioma, all affiliated with the Information Retrieval Lab at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science as well as Birger Larsen from the Science, Policy and Information Studies research group at Aalborg University’s Department of Communication.

  • The results were published by: Christian Hansen, Casper Hansen, Jakob Grue Simonsen, Birger Larsen, Stephen Alstrup and Christina Lioma (2020). Factuality Checking in News Headlines with Eye Tracking. In Proceedings of the 43nd International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3397271.3401221

  • The study is partly funded by Innovation Fund Denmark, through DABAI.