Think before you share!

Researchers found that most people do actually value accuracy, and want to share truthful articles, but in the heat of the social-media moment, they consider factors other than accuracy

By Susan A. Nolan and Michael Kimball

Published: Mon 29 Mar 2021, 11:47 PM

You’re scrolling through social media and notice that one of your really smart friends has once again shared a somewhat tantalising story that you know is wrong. The story has a good hook in its title, but it’s ultimately just misinformation. Why does your smart friend do that? A new article in the journal Nature explains why so many of us unthinkingly forward misinformation and it’s a little disappointing, if understandable (Pennycook et al., 2021). This international team of researchers found that most people do actually value accuracy, and want to share truthful articles, but in the heat of the social-media moment, they consider factors other than accuracy — like, um…, the number of likes it might receive.

A nonpartisan pattern of sharing inaccurate posts

In a series of experiments, Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues (2021) set out to explore the contrast between what we believe and what we share. First, they reported that participants in their US-based studies were quite good at identifying which headlines were accurate and which were not, regardless of whether the headlines matched their political leaning. Despite this proficiency at rating the accuracy of headlines, participants were about twice as likely to share a false article that represented their political viewpoint as they were to rate it as accurate. Specifically, close to 20 per cent of people rated false headlines that matched their politics as accurate; yet close to 40 per cent of people said they would share these same news stories.

In one particularly telling example, the researchers explained that only about 16 per cent of Republicans judged the following headline as accurate: “Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested with Suicide Vests.” But more than half of Republicans said they might share this article. (Don’t feel too smug, Democrats. This pattern occurs on both sides of the partisan divide.) The authors reported that people are more attuned to getting “likes” from their followers and making their allegiances clear than they are to sharing accurate information.

What can social media platforms do?

That may seem hopeless, but these researchers identified some tactics that social media platforms might use so that people prioritise accuracy in their shares. In one study, the researchers recruited more than 5,000 Twitter users who had shared articles from sites that regularly traffic in misinformation. The researchers sent private messages to these Twitter users and asked them to rate the accuracy of an apolitical headline. After the intervention, the accuracy of these users’ posts increased by 5 to 10 per cent. They had been primed to think more about accuracy! An increase of 5 to 10 per cent may seem small, but when you consider the sheer number of Twitter posts, the decrease in the amount of shared misinformation could be quite substantial!

What can we do?

Here are the two main takeaways from this series of studies. First, it’s important to realise that the people sharing news stories may not even believe them — and that they might not even share them if they took a moment to think about them. So maybe we should judge a bit less and politely push back when a story seems false. And second, make it a habit to ask yourself how accurate each headline seems — before you share! If you don’t trust yourself to slow down and do this, maybe put a post-it note that reads “Is this really true?” on the back of your laptop or smartphone as a regular reminder. And if in doubt, scroll on. — Psychology Today

Susan A. Nolan is a professor of psychology at Seton Hall University. Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray and Dear Everybody

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