Social Media Distancing: Flattening the Infodemic Curve

Social media distancing might be another habit we all need to learn. Find out why we tend to spread misinformation and what we can all do about it.

We’ve all experienced it. The longer we’re cooped up by social distancing, the shorter our tempers get. The heatwave we’re enduring in the region where I live isn’t helping.

 Many of us spent too much time on social media before the pandemic, but now it feels as though we have no choice. The Internet has been a vital source of information for all of us during the coronavirus outbreak.

 On the other hand, it’s also spawning foul quagmires of false rumours and innuendo. We all interpret events, notably major events, through the lens of our own beliefs and biases.

The Lens of Our Own Beliefs and Biases

 It seems that people who have kept certain socially unacceptable notions to themselves for many years now feel free to let fly. Whatever it is that they secretly despise, they attribute the epidemic we are fighting to their pet scapegoat.

To me, the nonsense isn’t about left and right. People with conservative biases are as likely to spread misinformation and shoddy medical advice as people who favour more progressive ideologies.

 As a result, we see people crawling out of the worldwide woodwork ranging from anti-vaxxers to animal rights extremists to 5G antagonists to mainstream media skeptics to garden variety racists. The one trait they all share is that they blame COVID-19 on whoever or whatever it is that they’re against.

They Blame COVID-19 on Whatever They’re Against

These prejudices have led to social media rumours that the coronavirus is a ploy by Bill Gates to persuade people to get vaccinated. Others insist that if there were no animal agriculture, there would never have been an outbreak in China.

 The World Health Organization (WHO) had to spend time putting out an official statement that viruses don’t spread via radio waves. Those in the US who continue to support the current administration claim that the virus is either fake news, a Chinese hoax or both, along with the masks they refuse to wear.

The WHO officially declared that we’re fighting an “infodemic.” How did it go viral (pardon the expression)? In an age where timely access to accurate information has never been easier, why are we seeing such a global outbreak of dangerous nonsense that threatens public health?

Global Outbreak of Dangerous Nonsense

Last week, the journal Psychological Science published a study by scholars from MIT. They delved into our propensity to share misinformation on social media about COVID-19 and what we can do about it.

Professor David Rand is one of the study’s co-authors. As he puts it, “There does appear to be a disconnect between accuracy judgments and sharing intentions. 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.”

We would hope that if you asked people if they thought a post was accurate or asked them if they would share that post, the answer would be much the same. If people believe a story is inaccurate, most of us would assume that readers wouldn’t share it, and vice versa.

Don’t Pause to Ask Themselves if an Article Is Credible

Sadly, the study found that isn’t how people behave. In practice, people often don’t pause to ask themselves if an article on social media is credible before they hit the “share” button.

The study consisted of two online experiments involving a sizeable total sample of 1,700 people. They also collected “snippets” (a headline, an image and a first sentence) representing fifteen true and fifteen false stories about COVID-19.

For the first experiment, the researchers divided the subjects into two groups. They asked the first group whether they thought the items were accurate. 

Accuracy Judgment Was Reasonably Reliable

The accuracy group answered correctly roughly two-thirds of the time. Their judgment was reasonably reliable, although there was room for improvement.

The second group of people answered a different question. Their task was to tell the researchers whether or not they would share each article on social media.

They shared about half of the real stories and almost half of the false information. Their judgment wasn’t much better than random chance. They might as well have flipped a coin.

Sharing judgment Wasn’t Much Better Than Random Chance

The second experiment was similar to the first one. The researchers split the group again, using the same posts and once again asked one group whether or not they would share them.

The difference was that this time before they the other group started to decide what to share, they evaluated a story that wasn’t about COVID-19. This extra step made a significant difference.

The spread between the shared and unshared articles was three times more consistent with the truth than in the first experiment. The researchers call the little extra task an “accuracy-nudge.”

Researchers Call Little Extra Task an “Accuracy Nudge”

Professor Rand explains, “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.”

The study had another reassuring finding. Before the group got started, the scientists tested each participant to determine their scientific knowledge and capacity for critical thinking.

As one would hope, those who were skilled in these two areas were better at judging if a story was true. They were also less inclined to share inaccuracies on social media.

Scientific, Critical Thinkers Shared Fewer Inaccuracies

Since the US’s political shift, we’ve been hearing a lot about a growing disregard for the truth. Have we become so worn down that we don’t think anything is real anymore?

Not according to team member Professor Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina. His interpretation is that “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 anymore. Our evidence suggests it’s not that people don’t care; it’s more that they’re distracted.”

Fortunately, it’s not hard to dispel that distraction. We just need a little nudge, like being asked if something seems accurate to us or not. Once we put on our critical thinking cap, it sticks with us, even if we’re thinking about a different task.

Sticks With Us, Even When Thinking About a Different Task

We also might hope that the pandemic’s gravity encourages people to have a sober second thought about what information to share online. That’s another disappointing result of the study. Professor Rand explains, “Part of the issue with health and this pandemic is that it’s very anxiety-inducing. Being emotionally aroused is another thing that makes you less likely to stop and think carefully.”

In the end, the team leaves us with some positive and negative conclusions about human nature. As we might have guessed, many of us have a bad habit of sharing information on social media without pausing to fact-check it.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take a very sharp nudge to snap us out of that mode. Practicing our critical thinking skills, even briefly, makes a substantial difference. Maybe reading this story can act as a nudge to our readers to remember to fact-check before they forward a post.

Nudge to Remember to Fact-Check Before Forwarding Posts

Those who take the time to learn more about science seem to break the bad habit of careless social media sharing. Some of us have a temperament that relies more heavily on critical thinking than on emotional reactions to things.

Annoying and monotonous as this quarantine lifestyle may be, we’re also discovering many things about ourselves. When we get back to whatever the new normal has in store for us, we’ll have fresh insights into how our minds and cultures function. 

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Our itch to share helps spread Covid-19 misinformation
Fighting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media: Experimental Evidence for a Scalable Accuracy-Nudge Intervention
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science
Infodemic: “Dangerous Outbreak of Misinformation”
onspiracy Theories Spread Faster than Germs


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