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Why do Americans share so much fake news? One big reason is that they are not paying attention, as new research shows »Nieman Journalism Lab


Many Americans share fake news on social media simply because they don’t pay attention to whether the content is correct – not necessarily because they can’t tell real from fictional messages, suggests a new study in Nature.

Lack of attention was the driving factor behind 51.2% of misinformation exchanges among social media users who participated in an experiment conducted by a group of researchers from MIT, the University of Regina in Canada, the University of Exeter Business School in the UK and the Center for. Research and teaching in economics was carried out in Mexico. Results from a second, related experiment suggest that simple intervention – getting social media users to think about the accuracy of messages before posting and interacting with content – could help spread misinformation online to limit.

“It seems that the social media context can distract people from accuracy,” said study co-author Gordon Pennycook, assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina. “People are often able to distinguish between true and false news content, but they don’t even consider whether the content is correct before sharing it on social media.”

Pennycook and his colleagues conducted seven behavioral and survey experiments as part of their study, “Paying Attention to Accuracy Can Reduce Misinformation on the Internet,” published last week. Some experiments focused on Facebook and others focused on Twitter.

Researchers recruited participants for most of the experiments through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace used by many academics. For an experiment, they selected Twitter users who had previously shared links to two well-known, right-wing websites that were consistently untrustworthy by professional fact checkers – Breitbart.com and Infowars.com. The sample size for each experiment varies from 401 US adults for the smallest to 5,379 for the largest experiment.

For several experiments, the researchers asked participants to review the basic elements of news reports – headlines, opening sentences, and accompanying images. Half of the stories represented actual reporting, while the other half contained fabricated information. Half of the content was favorable to the Republicans and half to the Democrats. Participants were randomly assigned to either gauge the accuracy of the headlines or decide whether to share them online.

For the final experiment, the researchers sent private messages to 5,379 Twitter users who had previously shared content from Breitbart and Infowars. The news asked these people to assess the veracity of a headline on a non-political topic. The researchers then monitored the content these participants shared over the next 24 hours.

The experiments provide a variety of insights into why people share misinformation on social media:

  • A third – 33.1% – of attendees’ decisions to post false headlines were because they didn’t realize they were inaccurate.
  • More than half of participants’ decisions to make false headlines – 51.2% – were due to inattentiveness.
  • Participants reported that accuracy is more important than partiality – a finding that challenges the notion that people share misinformation to benefit their political party or to harm the opposing party. Almost 60% of respondents who took a survey said that it is “extremely important” that the content they share on social media is accurate. About 25% said it was “very important”.
  • Partiality was a driving factor behind 15.8% of decisions to share false headlines on social media.
  • The design of social media platforms could contribute to the exchange of misinformation. “Our results suggest that the current design of social media platforms – where users quickly scroll through a mix of serious news and emotionally engaging content and receive instant quantified social feedback on their sharing – can discourage people from thinking about it to think about the accuracy, ”the authors write in their newspaper.
  • Twitter users who previously shared Breitbart and Infowars content were less likely to share misinformation after receiving private messages asking for their opinion on the accuracy of a headline. In the 24 hours after receiving the news, these Twitter users were 2.8 times more likely to share a link to a mainstream news agency than a link to a fake or bipartisan website.

Pennycook and colleagues note that Twitter intervention – sending private messages – seemed particularly effective for people with larger numbers of Twitter followers. Pennycook told me that this is probably because Twitter accounts with more followers are more influential within their networks.

“The downstream effect of improving the quality of messaging increases with the influence of the user who makes better decisions,” he said. “The effect may be just as effective (if not more) for users with more followers, as the meaning of ‘I better make sure this is true’ is literally bigger for those with more followers.”

Pennycook said social media platforms could encourage the sharing of quality content – and bring people back to the truth again – by encouraging users to pay more attention to its accuracy.

Platforms, say the authors, “could regularly ask users to rate the accuracy of randomly selected headlines, subtly reminding them of the accuracy reactance should avoid (while generating useful mass ratings that can help identify misinformation. “

Researchers received funding for their study from the Miami Foundation’s Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the John Templeton Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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