On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave markedly different analyses of the COVID-19 situation. If they couldn’t agree, how can citizens make sense of the false claims spreading throughout the internet?
It’s simple: they can be nudged toward the truth.
That’s the thesis of a new study by professors at MIT Sloan and the University of Regina.
They found that people are likely to share false headlines about COVID-19 online even if they don’t believe them.
The study concerns social media, but its findingsare also probably true for email.
Email newsletters tend to be written by professional journalists or content providers. We’d like to think that most are accurate, but even when they’re not, the fact remains that email stories can also be shared.
The authors conducted two experiments. In the first, they split roughly 850 people into two groups.
The groups were given identical headlines, but one sample was asked to classify the heads as accurate or not, and the other was asked whether they would share them on social media.
The study found that 50% more people considered sharing the headlines versus those who rated them as accurate.
“Our participants could fairly effectively identify the accuracy of true versus false headlines when asked to do so, but they nonetheless were willing to share many false headlines on social media,” writes David G. Rand, an associate professor at MIT Sloan, one of three co-authors of the research.
Rand adds: “This suggests that the problem of people sharing misinformation is not that people just can't tell true from false.”
So why do they do it? Not out of malice, “but, rather, because social media draws their attention to motivations besides accuracy, like attracting the recognition and plaudits of friends and followers,” Rand continues.
The second experiment examined ways to counteract the impulse to share false information. One group was asked about their willingness to share headlines, some of them true and some false.
The second group was asked to rate the accuracy of a single headline. That alone made these readers less likely to share false headlines and more prone to sharing accurate ones.
“Improving the quality of the content shared by one user improves the content that their followers see, and therefore improves the content their followers share,” Rand writes.
It’s not clear what this means in practical terms. Will social networks ask people to rate accuracy before they share things?
We’d say the burden of proof is on the content writers. Accurate and relevant information will be shared by people who feel responsible for the truth.
In addition to Rand, the study was conducted by Gordon Pennycook, of the University of Regina, and MIT Sloan PhD student Yunhao Zhang.