A new study finds that our itch to share on social media helps spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study discovered that when people are consuming news on social media, their inclination to share that news with others interferes with their ability to assess its accuracy.
However, there’s good news from the study: While sharing on social media affects news judgment, there is a quick exercise to reduce the problem, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Regina University in Canada.
For the study, researchers presented the same false news headlines about COVID-19 to two groups of people: One group was asked if they would share those stories on social media, and the other evaluated their accuracy. The researchers discovered that the participants were 32.4 percent more likely to say they would share the headlines than they were to say those headlines were accurate.
“There does appear to be a disconnect between accuracy judgments and sharing intentions,” said MIT professor Dr. David Rand, co-author of the new study. “People are much more discerning when you ask them to judge the accuracy, compared to when you ask them whether they would share something or not.”
But the researchers found that a little bit of reflection can go a long way. Participants who were more likely to think critically, or who had more scientific knowledge, were less likely to share misinformation. And when asked directly about accuracy, most participants did reasonably well at telling true news headlines from false ones, the researchers reported.
The study also offers a solution for over-sharing: When participants were asked to rate the accuracy of a single non-COVID-19 story at the start of their news-viewing sessions, the quality of the COVID-19 news they shared increased significantly, according to the researchers.
“The idea is, if you nudge them about accuracy at the outset, people are more likely to be thinking about the concept of accuracy when they later choose what to share. So then they take accuracy into account more when they make their sharing decisions,” explained Rand.
For the study, the researchers conducted two online experiments in March 2020, with about 1,700 U.S. participants, using the survey platform Lucid. Participants matched the nation’s distribution of age, gender, ethnicity, and geographic region, the researchers noted.
The first experiment had 853 participants. It used 15 true and 15 false news headlines about COVID-19 in the style of Facebook posts, with a headline, photo, and initial sentence from a story. The researchers explained they did this because most people only read headlines on social media.
The participants were split into two groups. One group was asked if the headlines were accurate. The second group was asked if they would consider sharing the posts on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The first group correctly judged the stories’ accuracy about two-thirds of the time, according to the study’s findings.
The second group, therefore, might be expected to share the stories at a similar rate, the researchers hypothesized.
However, they discovered the participants in the second group shared about half of the true stories, and just under half of the false stories — meaning their judgment about which stories to share was almost random in regard to accuracy, the researchers said.
The second study, with 856 participants, used the same group of headlines and again split the participants into two groups. The first group simply looked at the headlines and decided whether or not they would share them on social media.
But the second group of participants were asked to evaluate a non-COVID-19 headline before they made decisions about sharing the COVID-19 headlines.That extra step, of evaluating one non-COVID-19 headline, made a substantial difference, the researchers reported.
The “discernment” score of the second group — the gap between the number of accurate and inaccurate stories they shared — was almost three times larger than that of the first group, according to the study’s findings.
The researchers also evaluated additional factors that might explain tendencies in the responses of the participants. They gave all participants a six-item Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) to evaluate their propensity to analyze information, rather than relying on gut instincts. They also evaluated how much scientific knowledge participants had, as well as looked at whether participants were located close to COVID-19 outbreaks.
They discovered that participants who scored higher on the CRT and knew more about science rated headlines more accurately and shared fewer false headlines.
Those findings suggest that the way people assess news stories has less to do with, say, preset partisan views about the news, and more to do with their broader cognitive habits, the researchers noted.
“A lot of people have a very cynical take on social media and our moment in history — that we’re post-truth and no one cares about the truth any more,” said Dr. Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, and a co-author on the study. “Our evidence suggests it’s not that people don’t care; it’s more that they’re distracted.”
The study follows other studies conducted by Rand and Pennycook about explicitly political news, which similarly suggest that cognitive habits, more so than partisan views, influence the way people judge the accuracy of news stories and lead to the sharing of misinformation.
In this new study, the researchers wanted to see if readers analyzed COVID-19 stories, and health information, differently than political information.
But they found the results were similar to the political news experiments they previously conducted.
“Our results suggest that the life-and-death stakes of COVID-19 do not make people suddenly take accuracy into greater account when they’re deciding what to share,” said Jackson G. Lu, an assistant professor at MIT and a co-author of the new study.
Actually, the very importance of COVID-19 as a subject may interfere with readers’ ability to analyze it, added Rand.
“Part of the issue with health and this pandemic is that it’s very anxiety-inducing,” Rand said. “Being emotionally aroused is another thing that makes you less likely to stop and think carefully.”
But the central explanation, according to the researchers, is actually the structure of social media, which encourages rapid browsing of news headlines, elevates splashy news items, and rewards users who post eye-catching news, by tending to give them more followers and retweets, even if those stories happen to be untrue.
“There is just something more systemic and fundamental about the social media context that distracts people from accuracy,” Rand said. “I think part of it is that you’re getting this instantaneous social feedback all the time. Every time you post something, you immediately get to see how many people liked it. And that really focuses your attention on: How many people are going to like this? Which is different from: How true is this?”
The study was published in Psychological Science.