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On social media platforms, more sharing means less caring about accuracy

MIT News: “..As a social media user, you can be eager to share content. You can also try to judge whether it is true or not. But for many people it is difficult to prioritize both these things at once. That’s the conclusion of a new experiment led by MIT scholars, which finds that even considering whether or not to share news items on social media reduces people’s ability to tell truths from falsehoods. The study involved asking people to assess whether various news headlines were accurate. But if participants were first asked whether they would share that content, they were 35 percent worse at telling truths from falsehoods. Participants were also 18 percent less successful at discerning truth when asked about sharing right after evaluating them. “Just asking people whether they want to share things makes them more likely to believe headlines they wouldn’t otherwise have believed, and less likely to believe headlines they would have believed,” says David Rand, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the study’s results. “Thinking about sharing just mixes them up.” The results suggest an essential tension between sharing and accuracy in the realm of social media. While people’s willingness to share news content and their ability to judge it accurately can both be bolstered separately, the study suggests the two things do not positively reinforce each other when considered at the same time. “The second you ask people about accuracy, you’re prompting them, and the second you ask about sharing, you’re prompting them,” says Ziv Epstein, a PhD student in the Human Dynamics group at the MIT Media Lab and another of the paper’s co-authors. “If you ask about sharing and accuracy at the same time, it can undermine people’s capacity for truth discernment.”

  • The paper, “The social media context interferes with truth discernment,” is published today in Science Advances. The authors are Epstein; Nathaniel Sirlin, a research assistant at MIT Sloan; Antonio Arechar, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico; Gordon Pennycook, an associate professor at the University of Regina; and Rand, who is the Erwin H. Schell Professor, a professor of management science and of brain and cognitive sciences, and the director of MIT’s Applied Cooperation Team.”

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