In spreading politics, videos may not be much more compelling than their text-based counterparts – ScienceDaily
It might appear that video would be a uniquely influential medium for disseminating information on the Internet. However, a new experiment by MIT researchers shows that video clips have only a slightly greater impact on political persuasion than the written word.
“Our conclusion is that watching videos is not much more convincing than reading text,” says David Rand, professor at MIT and co-author of a new paper detailing the results of the study.
The study comes amid widespread concern about political misinformation on the Internet, including the possibility that technology-based “deepfake” videos could easily convince many viewers to believe false claims.
“Technological advances have created new ways for people to forge video material, but we still know surprisingly little about how individuals process political video compared to text,” says MIT researcher Chloe Wittenberg, lead author of the study. “Before we can identify strategies to combat the proliferation of deepfakes, we must first answer these more fundamental questions about the role of video in political advocacy.”
The paper “The (Minimal) Persuasive Advantage of Political Video over Text” was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The co-authors are Adam J. Berinsky, the Mitsui Professor of Political Science; Rand, the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences; Ben Tappin, Postdoc in the Human Cooperation Lab; and Chloe Wittenberg, PhD student at the Institute for Political Science.
Credibility and persuasiveness
The study is based on a distinction between the credibility of videos and their persuasiveness. That is, an audience may find a video believable, but their attitudes may not change. Alternatively, a video may not appear believable to a large part of the audience, but it can still change the attitudes or behavior of the viewers.
For example, Rand says, “If you watch a stain remover ad, they’re all the same format, where a stain gets on a shirt, you pour the remover on it, and it goes in the washing machine and hey, look, the stain is So one question is: do you think that happened or was it just a trick? And the second question is: How much do you want to buy the stain remover? The answers to these questions don’t have to be tightly connected. “
To conduct the study, MIT researchers conducted two survey experiments with 7,609 Americans using the Lucid and Dynata platforms. The first study included 48 advertisements obtained through the Peoria Project, an archive of political material. Respondents either viewed an ad, read a transcript of the ad, or received no information at all. (Each participant did this several times.) For each ad, participants were asked whether the message seemed credible and whether they agreed with the main message. They were then asked a series of questions to measure whether they thought the topic was personally important and whether they wanted more information.
The second study followed the same format but included 24 popular video clips about Covid-19 from YouTube.
Overall, the results showed that video performed slightly better than written text in terms of credibility, but had a lower relative advantage in terms of persuasiveness. Participants were slightly more likely to believe that events actually took place when shown in a video rather than as described in a written transcript. However, the advantage of video over text was only a third as great when it came to changing attitudes and behavior of the participants.
As a further indication of this limited conviction advantage of video over text, the difference between the “control condition” (for participants who received no information) and reading text was just as great as between reading the transcript and watching the video.
These differences were surprisingly stable between the groups. For example, in the second study, there were little differences in the impact of political and non-political messages on Covid-19, suggesting that the results apply to different types of content. The researchers also found no significant differences between respondents based on factors such as age, political partisanship, and political knowledge.
“Seeing is believing,” says Berinsky, “but our study shows that just because video is more believable, it doesn’t mean it can change people’s minds.”
Questions about online behavior
Scientists acknowledge that the study did not accurately reproduce the conditions in which people consume information online, but suggest that key findings provide valuable insights into the relative strength of video versus text.
“It’s possible that things are a little different in real life,” says Rand. “It is possible that as you scroll through your news feed, video will attract more attention than text. You’re more likely to look at it. That doesn’t mean that video is inherently more compelling than text – just that it has the potential to reach a wider audience. “
However, the MIT team notes that there are some clear directions for future research in the area – including whether people are more willing to watch videos than read materials.
“Some people may prefer to watch videos rather than read text,” notes Tappin. “Platforms like TikTok, for example, are heavily video-based and the audience is mostly young adults. Among these audiences, a small compelling advantage of video over text can quickly increase because video can reach so many more people. Future research could explore these and other ideas. “
The study was funded by Jigsaw, a technology research incubator founded by Google.