At least it’s clear: “the context of social networks interferes with discerning the truth.” This is the title of an article published in the journal Scientific achievements in early March 2023 and signed by researchers from the Media Lab and the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA). This study shows that the prospect of sharing a media article on a social network impairs the ability of Internet users to judge whether the information is true or false. Conversely, their judgment is much sharper when they read headlines without sharing them online.
The researchers voluntarily rejected any other explanation for the ease with which false information spreads through social media, be it algorithmic isolation, speed of interaction, lack of professional information processing. They focus on the role played by the mere opportunity to share something. However, they note in their article: “IThere are many motives for sharing information that go beyond just knowing if it’s true.”
Two Stage Experience
The team conducted a two-stage experiment with 3,157 participants. Between late July and early August 2020, they presented 768 participants with 25 article headlines about the Covid-19 health crisis, 15 of which contained false information. Then, in October 2020, other participants were presented with 60 political news stories (half true, half false) as Facebook posts with a title, image, and source.
From there, for certain headlines, some participants were asked to only say if they believed them to be true. Others only to say if they would be willing to share them online (“for example, on Facebook or Twitter,” stated in the questionnaire). The third group first had to be told whether they would share it or not, and then decide on the reliability of the information. And for the fourth and final group of participants, the researchers changed the order of the questions: first say whether the information is true or false, then indicate your intention to share it online or not.
Judge and share or share and judge
For the second wave of tests, October’s political news, participants were also asked to say whether they would comment or “like” relevant Facebook posts in addition to sharing them.
And the conclusions are quite clear. When respondents are asked to decide whether to share content, respondents are much less likely to be able to say whether the information is accurate than those who were not asked to share anything. “We also found that the magnitude of this effect varied significantly depending on whether the question was about the accuracy of the information or the intention to share first.”
Specifically, participants are less likely to recognize false information when the question of exchange comes before the question of validity. In the first wave of tests, they were 35% less able to do so than participants who only had to judge whether the information was correct. This difference drops to 18% when they first need to evaluate accuracy and then say if they plan to share the information.
The Aggravating Effect of Online Sharing
For the group, this study shows that the perspective of information sharing does not cause Internet users to be more cautious about the authenticity of content; rather, it exacerbates the spread of false information: “It’s not just that people forget to ensure the accuracy of information when they decide to share it, but that their ability to judge is getting worse.” Thus, it is not the desire to cause harm but the prospect of sharing that makes it easier for Internet users to believe information they would not believe under other circumstances. In short, guarantees are falling.
The reason may be looking for the “state of mind” an Internet user is in when offered the opportunity to share something online. The accuracy of information becomes secondary to what researchers call “social motives” characteristic of platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
However, the study does not completely clear these platforms, as it points to subtle design that encourages content sharing (the famous search for “engagement” of Internet users). Researchers believe that design might just as well inspire people to care about content accuracy. They also mention mechanisms going in that direction on Pinterest or the Are.na platform.