As a social media user, you can be willing to share content. You can also try to judge whether it is true or not. But for many people it is difficult to prioritize both of these things at the same time.
That’s the conclusion of a new experiment led by MIT researchers, which finds that even considering whether or not to share news on social media reduces people’s ability to distinguish truth from lies.
The study involved asking people to rate whether various news headlines were accurate. But if participants were first asked whether they would share this content, they were 35% worse at telling truths than lies. Participants were also 18% less successful at discerning the truth when asked about sharing immediately after their assessment.
“Asking people only if they want to share things makes them more likely to believe headlines they wouldn’t otherwise believe and less likely to believe headlines they would,” says David Rand, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. and co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s results. “Thinking about sharing just messes them up.”
The results suggest a substantial tension between sharing and accuracy in the social media realm. While people’s willingness to share news content and their ability to judge it accurately can both be enhanced separately, the study suggests that the two things do not positively reinforce each other when considered simultaneously.
“The second you ask people about accuracy, you prompt them, and the second you ask people about sharing, you prompt them,” says Ziv Epstein, Ph.D. student in the Human Dynamics group at the MIT Media Lab and another of the paper’s co-authors. “If you ask about sharing and accuracy at the same time, it can undermine people’s ability to discern truth.”
The paper, “Social Media Context Interferes with Discrimination of Truth,” will be published on March 3 Advances in Science. The authors are Epstein. Nathaniel Sirlin, research assistant at MIT Sloan. Antonio Arechar, professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, Aguascalientes, Mexico. Gordon Pennycook, Associate Professor at the University of Regina. and Rand, who is the Erwin H. Schell Professor of Management Science and of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and director of MIT’s Applied Collaboration Group.
To conduct the study, researchers conducted two waves of online surveys of 3,157 Americans whose demographic characteristics approximated US averages for age, gender, ethnicity and geographic distribution. All participants use either Twitter or Facebook. People were shown a series of true and false headlines about politics and the COVID-19 pandemic and randomly divided into two groups. At times they were asked only about accuracy or only about content sharing. Other times they were asked about both, in a different order. From this research design, scholars could determine the effect that the content sharing question has on people’s judgments of news accuracy.
In conducting the research, the researchers investigated two hypotheses regarding news sharing and judgments. One possibility is that asking about sharing could make people more discerning about the content because they would not want to share misleading news. The other possibility is that asking people about headline sharing feeds into the generally distracted state in which consumers view news while on social media, and therefore reduces their ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.
“Our results are different from saying, ‘If I told you I was going to share this, then I say I believe it because I don’t want to look like I shared something I don’t believe,'” says Rand. “We have evidence that that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a more generalized distraction.”
The research also looked at partisan leanings among participants and found that for the COVID-19 headlines, the sharing prompt influenced the judgment of Republicans more than Democrats, although there was no parallel effect for political news headlines.
“We don’t really have an explanation for this partisan difference,” says Rand, calling the issue “an important direction for future research.”
As for the overall findings, Rand suggests that as scary as the results may sound, they also contain some silver linings. One conclusion of the study is that people’s belief in lies may be influenced more by their patterns of online activity than by an active intention to deceive others.
“I think there’s a sense of hope in that, given that a big part of the message is that people are not immoral and intentionally share bad things,” says Rand. “And people aren’t completely desperate. But it’s more that social media platforms have created an environment in which people are distracted.”
Ultimately, the researchers say, these social media platforms could be redesigned to create settings in which people are less likely to share misleading and inaccurate news content.
“There are ways to post that aren’t just about sharing,” says Epstein.
He adds, “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 move forward.”
Ziv Epstein et al, The social media context interferes with discerning truth, Advances in Science (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abo6169. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abo6169
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Reference: On Social Media Platforms, More Sharing Means Less Interest in Accuracy (2023, March 3) Retrieved March 4, 2023, from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-social-media-platforms- accuracy.html
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