If you use social media, you might be eager to share what you find. You may also use your own judgment to figure out whether it’s true. But many people find it hard to put both of these things at the top of their list.
This is what MIT researchers found in a new study. Just thinking about whether or not to share news stories on social media makes it harder for people to tell the truth from a false story.
As part of the research, participants were asked to evaluate the accuracy of a number of different news headlines.
But, when participants were initially asked whether they would share that information, they were 35 percent less able to distinguish between truth and lie.
When asked about sharing right after being evaluated, participants were 18% less able to figure out what was true.
“Just asking people whether they want to share things makes them more likely to believe headlines they wouldn’t otherwise have believed, and less likely to believe headlines they would have believed,” adds co-author David Rand. “Thinking about sharing just mixes them up.”
According to the findings, there exists a fundamental conflict between the urge to share and the need for accuracy on social media platforms. Even though individuals can improve their propensity to share news and their capacity to evaluate its accuracy independently, the study concludes that these two aspects do not mutually reinforce each other when considered simultaneously.
“The second you ask people about accuracy, you’re prompting them, and the second you ask about sharing, you’re prompting them,” remarks co-author Ziv Epstein. “If you ask about sharing and accuracy at the same time, it can undermine people’s capacity for truth discernment.”
The findings of the study were published in Science Advances.
The study was done via two waves of online surveys with a total of 3,157 U.S. residents representing a cross-section of the country’s demographics (in terms of age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region). Everyone in the group uses either Twitter or Facebook.
Those who participated were randomly split into two groups and exposed to both factual and fabricated news reports about political figures and the Covid-19 outbreak. They were sometimes simply questioned about accuracy or only asked about sharing material, and other times they were questioned about both in a different sequence. The researchers were able to infer from the survey’s design how people’s perceptions of the veracity of the news are affected by questions regarding sharing material.
By doing the survey, the researchers were testing two ideas about how people share and judge news. People may become more selective about material if they are questioned about sharing since they wouldn’t want to spread false information, according to one theory.
The second theory is that pushing people to share headlines contributes to the usually disengaged state in which individuals see news while using social media, which impairs their capacity to distinguish between truth and falsehood..
“Our results are different from saying, ‘If I told you I was going to share it, then I say I believe it because I don’t want to look like I shared something I don’t believe,” Rand adds. “We have evidence that that’s not what is going on. Instead, it’s about more generalized distraction.”
The study also looked at the partisan leanings of the people who took part. They found that when it came to Covid-19 headlines, being asked about sharing changed the way Republicans thought about them more than it did Democrats, but it didn’t have the same effect on political news headlines.
“We don’t really have an explanation for that partisan difference,” Rand adds, calling the issue “an important direction for future research.”
Rand asserts that the overall conclusions have some positive aspects despite how scary they may seem. The research came to the conclusion that people’s online behavior habits may have a greater impact on their likelihood to believe lies than their intentional desire to mislead others.
“I think there’s in some sense a hopeful take on it, in that a lot of the message is that people aren’t immoral and purposely sharing bad things,” Rand adds. “And people aren’t totally hopeless. But more it’s that the social media platforms have created an environment in which people are being distracted.”
The social media platforms in question may eventually be modified to create environments where users are less prone to spread false and false news material, according to the researchers.
“There are ways of broadcasting posts that aren’t just focused on sharing,” Epstein adds.
He continues, “There’s so much room to grow and develop and design these platforms that are consistent with our best theories about how we process information and can make good decisions and form good beliefs. I think this is an exciting opportunity for platform designers to rethink these things as we take a step forward.”
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