A little knowledge can get to your head, a new study shows. When people only glance an article preview or snippet, they think they have a pretty good understanding of the topic, but this is generally not the case. This is particularly important in the case of social media such as Facebook.

Example of Facebook feed used in the study. Image credits: Anspach et al.

There’s a mountain of research showing that exposing people to news makes them better informed — but this comes from an age where “news” meant something different than what it means today. News and journalism have changed quite a bit over the years, and nowadays, about 67% of Americans get their news from social media.

You don’t even need a study to tell you that those people rarely bother to read the entire article — just ask any website manager and they will tell you that visitors from Facebook rarely spend over a minute on most news websites. A recent report found that over half of Facebook visitors spend no more than 15 seconds on news articles, which is barely enough to glance a single paragraph.

This may mean that readers aren’t necessarily more informed, they just have the illusion of being more informed.

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Researchers wanted to test that idea, and recruited 1,000 participants split into three groups:

  • the first one (320 participants) was asked to read through a full article from The Washington Post about genetically modified (GM) foods;
  • the second one (319 participants) was given a Facebook newsfeed with four different article previews;
  • the third one (351 participants) was given no information at all.

They then tested the participants’ knowledge and asked them six factual questions about genetically modified foods. The good news is that even something as small as a Facebook snippet had a positive learning impact. While people who read the article answered the most correct questions on average, people who only read the snippet answered one more question correctly than the control group on average.

“We found that Facebook’s News Feed, with its short article previews, provides enough information for learning to occur. This in itself is an important and normatively positive finding: in a relatively new way of acquiring information, Facebook users are learning by merely scrolling through their News Feed,” researchers write in the study.

However, there was a price to pay for this: people who read the snippet thought they knew much more than they actually did. Researchers found that the snippet readers were overconfident in their ability to answer the questions.

“Social media can inform audiences, even the little article previews that appear in Facebook’s News Feed. However, with this learning comes a false confidence; some individuals (particularly those motivated by their gut reactions) think they learn more the issue than they actually do,” lead author Nicolas Anspach, an assistant professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania told PsyPost.

The overconfidence was particularly prevalent in the case of participants who were emotionally invested in the story. These people were more unaware of the limitations of their acquired knowledge, and for them, the positive feelings associated with being accurate are likely to be as important as actually being accurate, researchers say.

It’s important to quantify how much information is acquired through article snippets and how much overconfidence they cause. Feeling like you’re more informed means you are more likely to become politically engaged and vote, which is a positive — but overconfidence can make people more susceptible to misinformation.

“Future research should continue to investigate whether emotion can help us understand the spread and influence of fake news. As Facebook is increasingly relied on as a news source, audiences’ overconfidence could be potentially troublesome, especially if the perceived knowledge gain is based on misinformation,” researchers conclude.

The study, “A little bit of knowledge: Facebook’s News Feed and self-perceptions of knowledge“, was published in Research and Politics.