We’ve all seen it: social media is full of garbage. While we’d like to think otherwise, a big chunk of this garbage is shared by users much like ourselves. Thankfully, there are ways to address this. Prompting people to reflect on the accuracy of news headlines can greatly reduce the amount of “fake news” in our feeds, a new study shows.
The moon is cheese
In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of misinformation flowing around the internet. It’s not like this is a new phenomenon, but new channels (such as social media) have given people a loudspeaker, and many are using it to spread misinformation — whether they’re aware or not.
This is more than just a nuisance. This type of misinformation, as we’ve recently seen, spreads to all layers of society, including its higher political echelons.
The design of social media platforms doesn’t help either. It’s all fast, as fast as possible. You scroll through stories and photos, you like and reshare stories in an instant. Accuracy, of course, fades in the background. Most people who see something they like (or hate) share it without a second thought — and this is where the problems start.
“We begin with the confusion-based account, in which people share misinformation because they mistakenly believe that it is accurate (for example, owing to media or digital illiteracy or politically motivated reasoning),” the authors of a new study write.
The study was led by Gordon Pennycook, assistant professor in Behavioural Science at the University of Regina in Canada. Pennycook and colleagues carried out four survey experiments and a Twitter experiment. In the initial experiments, they presented participants with real news stories (half of which were untrue), asking them to judge the accuracy of these titles and whether they’d consider sharing them.
People rated true headlines as accurate more often than the false ones, and most participants stated that it was extremely important to share only accurate information on social media — so presumably, they don’t intentionally share misleading information. But there’s a catch: people were also twice as likely to consider false stories that fit with their political beliefs.
At first glance, this seems to suggest that people value partisanship over accuracy. But while misinformation can exacerbate partisan behavior, researchers note that their results “challenge the popular claim that people value partisanship over accuracy” — because when researchers prompted study volunteers to consider the accuracy of what they’re sharing, they shared fewer false stories.
In other words, people just aren’t paying attention, which is normal internet behavior. If they were prompted to pay more attention, they would avoid spreading falsehoods more often.
“Our data indicate that social media companies could prompt people to think about accuracy in various ways. For example, by literally asking people questions about accuracy “help inform what we show people – do you think this headline is accurate”. Or perhaps just open-ended questions like “do you think it’s important to only share accurate content” (most people do). It’s possible that information campaigns, such as the one here, may be effective as well,” Pennycook tells ZME Science.
Think about what you’re sharing
This is good news — it offers a simple way to cut down on online misinformation. Researchers emphasize that social media platforms could easily implement to counter misinformation online.
The results are perhaps even more relevant because the study participants are savvier than the average user. Researchers gathered participants from the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) a crowdsourcing marketplace whose users likely spend more time on social media than the average person.
“On MTurk, we’ve done similar studies with various samples (although, all are from polling firms of one form or another) and our results are very consistent. In any case, what we’re interested in here is, in essence, internet behavior. And, so, our samples are people who spend more time on the internet than the average person – but that fits with the phenomenon that we’re interested in,” Pennycook adds.
This is a good reminder for when you’re surfing social media: take a moment to consider whether what you’re sharing is accurate. But expecting people to do this on a large scale is probably unrealistic — it’s companies that need to take action.
Twitter is already trialing some options. When users are sharing an article without actually opening the link, they can see a warning like the one above — and given that most people don’t even read the articles they share, this is a useful first step. But much more is needed.
Researchers conclude that periodic reminders to users to rate the accuracy of information could reduce the spread of misinformation online, along with all the problems it causes.
“Together, these studies suggest that when deciding what to share on social media, people are often distracted from considering the accuracy of the content. Therefore, shifting attention to the concept of accuracy can cause people to improve the quality of the news that they share,” the study sums up.