you do not have to a study to know that misinformation is rampant on social media; a quick search for “vaccines” or “climate change” will confirm this. A more compelling question is why. Clearly, there are at least contributions from organized disinformation campaigns, unbridled political bias, and questionable algorithms. But in addition, there are still many people who choose to share things that may even turn out to be garbage through a cursory examination. What drives them?
This was the question that motivated a small international team of researchers who decided to look at how a group of US residents decided on what news to share. Their results suggests that some of the standard factors that people point to when explaining the tsunami of misinformation – inability to evaluate information and biased biases – do not have as much impact as most of us think. Instead, much of the blame is directed at people, but just not thoroughly addressed.
The researchers performed a number of fairly similar experiments to share the details of incorrect information. It involved panels of U.S. participants recruited by Mechanical Turk or by a population survey that yielded a more representative U.S. sample. Each panel had several hundred to more than 1,000 individuals, and the results were consistent in different experiments, so the data were somewhat reproducible.
To do the experiments, the researchers collected a set of headlines and headlines from news reports shared on social media. The series was evenly mixed between headlines that were clearly true and clearly false, and each of these categories was again divided between the headlines that favored Democrats and those that favored Republicans.
One thing that was clear is that people can generally judge the accuracy of the headings. There was a gap of 56 percentage points between how often an accurate heading was considered true and how often a false heading was. People are not perfect – they get things wrong quite often – but it’s clear they’re a little better off than they get credit for.
The second thing is that ideology does not really seem to be an important factor in judging whether a heading was accurate. People were more likely to rate the headlines that matched their politics, but the difference here was only 10 percentage points. This is significant (both socially and statistically), but it is certainly not a large enough gap to explain the flood of misinformation.
But when the same people were asked if they would share the same stories, politics played a big role and the truth disappeared. The difference in the intention to divide between true and false headings was only 6 percentage points. Meanwhile, the gap between whether a headline matches the person’s politics or not has a gap of 20 percentage points. To put it concretely, the authors look at the false headline ‘More than 500’ migrant caravans ‘arrested with suicide vests.’ Only 16 percent of the conservatives in the population of the survey considered this to be true. But more than half of them were able to share it on social media.
In general, participants would have twice considered sharing a fake headline that matched their politics as much as judging it as accurate. Surprisingly, when the same population was asked if it was important to share only accurate content on social media, the most common answer was ‘extremely important’.
So that people can discern what is accurate, and they say that it is important to decide what to share. But when it comes down to the fact that the choice is made, accuracy does not seem to matter much. Or, as the researchers put it, something about the social media context shifts people’s attention away from caring for the truth, and to the desire to get likes and indicate their ideological affiliation.
To determine if this could be the case, the researchers slightly modified the experiment to remind people of the importance of accuracy. In their customized survey, they began by asking people to rate the accuracy of an impartial news headline, which would make participants more aware of the need for and the process of making such statements. Those who received this call were less likely to report that they were interested in sharing fake news headlines, especially if the headlines agreed with their politics. Similar things happened when people were simply asked about the importance of accuracy before doing the survey, rather than afterwards.