Our itch to share helps spread COVID-19 misinformation

Study finds social media sharing affects news judgment, but a quick exercise reduces the problem.

Newswise — To stay current about the Covid-19 pandemic, people need to process health information when they read the news. Inevitably, that means people will be exposed to health misinformation, too, in the form of false content, often found online, about the illness.

Now a study co-authored by MIT scholars contains bad news and good news about Covid-19 misinformation -- and a new insight that may help reduce the problem.

The bad news is that when people are consuming news on social media, their inclination to share that news with others interferes with their ability to assess its accuracy. The study presented the same false news headlines about Covid-19 to two groups of people: One group was asked if they would share those stories on social media, and the other evaluated their accuracy. The participants were 32.4 percent more likely to say they would share the headlines than they were to say those headlines were accurate.

"There does appear to be a disconnect between accuracy judgments and sharing intentions," says MIT professor David Rand, co-author of a new paper detailing the findings. "People are much more discerning when you ask them to judge the accuracy, compared to when you ask them whether they would share something or not."

The good news: A little bit of reflection can go a long way. Participants who were more likely to think critically, or who had more scientific knowledge, were less likely to share misinformation. And when asked directly about accuracy, most participants did reasonably well at telling true news headlines from false ones.

Moreover, the study offers a solution for over-sharing: When participants were asked to rate the accuracy of a single non-Covid-19 story at the start of their news-viewing sessions, the quality of the Covid-19 news they shared increased significantly.

"The idea is, if you nudge them about accuracy at the outset, people are more likely to be thinking about the concept of accuracy when they later choose what to share. So then they take accuracy into account more when they make their sharing decisions," explains Rand, who is the Erwin H. Schell Associate Professor with joint appointments at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The paper, "Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy nudge intervention," appears in Psychological Science. Besides Rand, the authors are Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina; Jonathan McPhetres, a postdoc at MIT and the University of Regina who is starting a position in August as an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University; Yunhao Zhang, a PhD student at MIT Sloan; and Jackson G. Lu, the Mitsui Career Development Assistant Professor at MIT Sloan.

Thinking, fast and slow

To conduct the study, the researchers conducted two online experiments in March, with a total of roughly 1,700 U.S. participants between them, using the survey platform Lucid. Participants matched the nation's distribution of age, gender, ethnicity, and geographic region.

The first experiment had 853 participants, and used 15 true and 15 false news headlines about Covid-19, in the style of Facebook posts, with a headline, photo, and initial sentence from a story. The participants were split into two groups. One group was asked if the headlines were accurate; the second group was asked if they would consider sharing the posts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The first group correctly judged the stories' accuracy about two-thirds of the time. The second group might therefore be expected to share the stories at a similar rate. However, the participants in the second group shared about half of the true stories, and just under half of the false stories -- meaning their judgment about which stories to share was almost random in regard to accuracy.

The second study, with 856 participants, used the same group of headlines and again split the participants into two groups. The first group simply looked at the headlines and decided whether or not they would share them on social media.

But the second group of participants were asked to evaluate a non-Covid-19 headline before they made decisions about sharing the larger group of Covid-19 headlines. (Both studies were focused on headlines and the single sentence of text, since most people only read headlines on social media.) That extra step, of evaluating one non-Covid-19 headline, made a substantial difference. The "discernment" score of the second group -- the gap between the number of accurate and inaccurate stories they shared -- was almost three times larger than that of the first group.

The researchers evaluated additional factors that might explain tendencies in the responses of the participants. They gave all participants a six-item Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), to evaluate their propensity to analyze information, rather than relying on gut instincts; evaluated how much scientific knowledge participants had; and looked at whether respondents were located close to Covid-19 outbreaks, among other things. They found that participants who scored higher on the CRT, and knew more about science, rated headlines more accurately and shared fewer false headlines.

Those findings suggest that the way people assess news stories has less to do with, say, preset partisan views about the news, and a bit more to do with their broader cognitive habits.

"A lot of people have a very cynical take on social media and our moment in history, that we're post-truth and no one cares about the truth any more," Pennycook says. "Our evidence suggests it's not that people don't care; it's more that they're distracted."

Something systemic about social media

The study follows others Rand and Pennycook have conducted about explicitly political news, which similarly suggest that cognitive habits, more so than partisan views, influence the way people judge the accuracy of news stories and lead to the sharing of misinformation. In this study, the scholars wanted to see if readers analyzed Covid-19 stories, and health information, differently than political information. But the results were generally similar to the political-news experiments the researchers have conducted.

"Our results suggest that the life-and-death stakes of Covid-19 do not make people suddenly take accuracy into [greater] account when they're deciding what to share," Lu says.

Indeed, Rand suggests, the very importance of Covid-19 as a subject may interfere with readers' ability to analyze it.

"Part of the issue with health and this pandemic is that it's very anxiety-inducing," Rand says. "Being emotionally aroused is another thing that makes you less likely to stop and think carefully."

Still, the central explanation, the scholars think, is simply the structure of social media, which encourages rapid browsing of news headlines, elevates splashy news items, and rewards users who post eye-catching news, by tending to give them more followers and retweets, even if those stories happen to be untrue.

"There is just something more systemic and fundamental about the social media context that distracts people from accuracy," Rand says. "I think part of it is that you're getting this instantaneous social feedback all the time. Every time you post something, you immediately get to see how many people liked it. And that really focuses your attention on: How many people are going to like this? Which is different from: How true is this?"

###




Filters close

Showing results

110 of 4157
Newswise: Stimulus Relief Funds Increase Social Distancing to Stop Spread of COVID-19
23-Nov-2020 5:20 PM EST
Stimulus Relief Funds Increase Social Distancing to Stop Spread of COVID-19
University of California San Diego

As case rates of COVID-19 reach new heights across the nation, many states and cities are tightening stay-at-home restrictions to stop the spread. New research suggests that that those suffering from economic hardships are less likely comply with new stay-at-home orders; however these same U.S. residents would be more likely to adhere to the new public health guidelines if their households received stimulus funds.

access_time Embargo lifts in 2 days
Embargo will expire: 1-Dec-2020 9:15 AM EST Released to reporters: 30-Nov-2020 2:30 PM EST

A reporter's PressPass is required to access this story until the embargo expires on 1-Dec-2020 9:15 AM EST The Newswise PressPass gives verified journalists access to embargoed stories. Please log in to complete a presspass application. If you have not yet registered, please Register. When you fill out the registration form, please identify yourself as a reporter in order to advance to the presspass application form.

Newswise:Video Embedded covid-19-update-surge-preparedness-vaccine-distribution
VIDEO
Released: 30-Nov-2020 2:20 PM EST
COVID-19 Update: Surge Preparedness, Vaccine Distribution
Cedars-Sinai

With the novel coronavirus spreading across the U.S. at a record pace, Cedars-Sinai has been seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients at its hospitals and through its network of physicians. But the health system's leaders say Cedars-Sinai is prepared.

Released: 30-Nov-2020 1:20 PM EST
Rethink COVID-19 infection control to keep primary schools open this winter, governments urged
BMJ

An urgent rethink of infection control policies to keep COVID-19 infection at bay in schools is needed if primary schools are to be kept open this winter, and the knock-on effects on their families avoided, argue children's infectious disease specialists in a viewpoint, published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Newswise: Hackensack University Medical Center Urologists Continue to Provide State-of-the-Art Care During COVID-19
Released: 30-Nov-2020 12:45 PM EST
Hackensack University Medical Center Urologists Continue to Provide State-of-the-Art Care During COVID-19
Hackensack Meridian Health

Don’t Delay Your Care – Our dnhanced pandemic safety precautions prioritize patient health and allow providers to deliver outstanding in-office, telehealth and surgical care

Released: 30-Nov-2020 12:10 PM EST
Struggles of care home staff during COVID-19 first wave revealed in Whatsapp messages
University of Leeds

Analysis of social media messages between care home staff on the coronavirus front line reveal their growing concerns over how to manage in the face of the virus.

Released: 30-Nov-2020 11:30 AM EST
More than one-third of children with COVID-19 show no symptoms: study
University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

More than one-third of kids who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic, according to a University of Alberta study that suggests youngsters diagnosed with the disease may represent just a fraction of those infected.

Newswise: Promising lab results in quest to find naturally occurring anti-COVID therapies
24-Nov-2020 5:35 PM EST
Promising lab results in quest to find naturally occurring anti-COVID therapies
University of Alabama Huntsville

So far, 35 of 125 naturally occurring compounds identified computationally at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) to have potential against COVID-19 have shown efficacy in ongoing first-batch testing at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (UTHSC RBL) that’s the next step in the process to becoming a drug.


Showing results

110 of 4157

close
1.57049