Think Before You Share — How Do We Stop The Spread of Misinformation Online?

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It is no secret that sharing news on social media has become “one of the most important developments in the contemporary media environment”. This was stated in a PEW research paper from almost a decade ago, and since then, our sharing capacity has only increased exponentially with the dawn of newer social media apps such as Twitter and Instagram.

But the problem can occur when misinformation is spread on a mass scale, and the speed and quantity of that information can lead to many dangerous situations. The official Whitehouse statements assuring the world of President Donald Trump’s speedy and miraculous recovery is just one such example of how easily a narrative can be manipulated to suit the needs or agenda of a particular interest group.

So how do we decide to share a piece of information? What goes into the decisionmaking process that leads to us retweeting, reposting, and linking an article we found circulation around the web? Luping Wang of Cornell University is also interested to know this.

Acquiring a PhD in Information Science and a particular interest in HCI and Communication Studies, Wang has targeted his research on studying online user behaviors and the psychological processes that inform them. It is when misinformation is shared that you can really determine a person’s intentions and thought process during this particular action we all participate in every day. Though we may see it as trivial, it actually is quite representative of our values as people.

Wang conducted a study on 20 participants (15 female, 5 male) with a mean age of 21.

He wanted them to discuss news they shared on Facebook, Twitter, or WeChat in the past 6 months and why they found it interesting.

He breaks down the cognitive process into 3 parts: Before Sharing, During Sharing, and After Sharing.

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Luping Wang describes the cognitive process of decisionmaking and focuses particularly on the consideration of a person’s relationship to others as a crucial part of that process.

Before Sharing

The first step is to assess the content, this, of course, happens before sharing. One participant stated that they shared their particular news story because “I trust the source because they wouldn’t accidentally share the news that isn’t fact-checked. I then prefer to share news from credited sources.” This then becomes a question of credibility. If a source has proven itself to be true time and time again, the public begins to trust it, but this can also lead to an issue of spreading misinformation when fact-checking has in fact not been done, or the source has amassed a large following through other means so then the credibility is based solely on the opinions of its followers who believe it to be true, but not the actual verisimilitude of their work.

Having a personal connection to a story may also influence your desire to share it. We love to feel a sense of relatability to the world and especially the people around us, but those narrow experiences are also not always universal. We may also share something simply because it is of personal interest. As one participant said, “I enjoy paying attention to the information that is related to the field to keep up more with innovation in engineering.”

We also evaluate the social value of sharing particular information. One participant said: “I would share because It’s just funny, I feel like at some point it doesn’t even matter it is true or not.” This shows that the more entertaining something is, the more likely we are to overlook it’s truthfulness because it made us laugh or provided us with a positive experience. It is a tactic used by websites like The Onion, which distributes fake news stories all over the internet every day, and their work is often mistaken as fact instead of as satire.

During Sharing

Fact-checking is perhaps the most crucial part of the sharing process because a quick search can stop the spread of misinformation to your network. one participant stated they do in fact validate a story before they send it out, and another mentioned using Google to type in the story and see if they could find the same information elsewhere. If more people used these tools in their decision-making process, it would become a lot easier to parse through what is fact and what is fiction.

After Sharing

We all await feedback on our posts, not only for the dopamine rush, but we want to connect with our family and friends, it helps us relate to them more especially when we have similar values. The hardest part of the sharing process for most people is revisiting old posts once it is determined to be false information. “I would probably take it back and say sorry that it was fake,” said one participant.”

It is hard to take accountability in situations where we have to admit we were wrong, but it is important that we keep our own credibility in check and also bring awareness to others when they spread misinformation. “Fundamentally we are all different people,” says Wang “So people pick the thing that motivates them every time they have to make this decision because it is hard for a person to go through all these phases every time.” But understanding how these processes work on a fundamental can perhaps give us some perspective and clarity to the issue at hand.

For an overview of the entire study, watch a replay of the free and interactive livestream only on DotsLive.

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