Social media users struggle to find a balance between sharing and verifying: study uncovers the truth

Social media users struggle to find a balance between sharing and verifying a study that reveals the truth

If you use social media, you might like to share what you find. You can also use your own judgment to find out if it’s true. But many people find it difficult to put these two things at the top of their list.

That’s what researchers at MIT found in a new study. Just thinking about whether or not to share news on social media makes it harder for people to tell the truth from a fake story.

As part of the research, participants were asked to rate the accuracy of a range of different news headlines.

But when participants were initially asked if they would share this information, they were 35 percent less able to distinguish between truth and lies.

When asked to share right after the rating, participants were 18% less able to figure out what was true.

“Just asking people to share makes them more likely to believe headlines they wouldn’t have otherwise and less likely to believe headlines they would have,” adds co-author David Rand. “The thought of sharing just confuses them.”

Thus, on social media platforms, there is a fundamental conflict between the urge to share and the need for accuracy. Although individuals can improve their willingness to share news and their ability to independently assess its accuracy, the study concludes that these two aspects are not mutually reinforcing when viewed simultaneously.

“The second you ask people about accuracy, you give them a prompt, and the second you ask people to share, you give them a prompt,” notes co-author Ziv Epstein. “When you ask about parts and accuracy at the same time, it can undermine people’s ability to establish truth.”

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The results of the study were published in Science Advances.

The study was conducted through two waves of online surveys totaling 3,157 US citizens representing a cross-section of the country’s demographics (by age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region). Everyone in the group uses either Twitter or Facebook.

Participants were randomly divided into two groups and exposed to both factual and fabricated news about political figures and the Covid-19 outbreak. Sometimes they were simply asked about accuracy or just sharing material, and sometimes they were asked about both in a different order. The researchers were able to infer from the survey design how people’s perceptions of the accuracy of the news are affected by questions about sharing material.

With the survey, the researchers tested two ideas about how people share and judge news. According to one theory, people may become more selective about material when asked to share, as they don’t want to spread false information.

The second theory is that pushing people to share headlines contributes to the normally disinterested state in which individuals watch news while using social media, impairing their ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

“Our results are different from saying, ‘If I’ve told you I’m going to share it, I’m saying I believe it because I don’t want to appear like I’ve shared something I don’t believe in’.” , adds Rand. “We have evidence that this is not the case. Instead, it’s about broader distraction.”

The study also examined participants’ partisan political leanings. They found that asking about sharing Covid-19 headlines changed the way Republicans thought about them more than Democrats, but it didn’t have the same effect on political news headlines.

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“We have no real explanation for this partisan difference,” Rand adds, calling the topic “an important direction for future research.”

Rand claims that the overall conclusions, while frightening, have some positive aspects. The study concluded that people’s online behavioral habits may have a greater impact on their likelihood of believing lies than their willful desire to mislead others.

“I think there’s a hopeful approach in a way, because a lot of the message is that people aren’t immoral and they share bad things on purpose,” Rand adds. “And people are not completely hopeless. Rather, the social media platforms have created an environment where people are distracted.”

Eventually, the social media platforms in question could be modified to create environments where users are less inclined to spread false and false news material, the researchers said.

“There are ways to spread the word that aren’t just for sharing,” Epstein adds.

He continues, “There is so much room to grow and evolve and shape these platforms that align with our best theories of how we can process information and make good decisions and form good beliefs. I think this is an exciting opportunity for platform designers to rethink these things as we move forward.”

Source: 10.1126/sciadv.abo6169

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