If you’ve ever used social media, you’ve probably encountered misinformation. It’s a widespread problem with serious consequences. Recent research has suggested that prompting social media users to think about the accuracy of information can increase the quality of news they subsequently share online.
Fact or Fiction? Increasing Discernment Around Misinformation
This is important because, while some tech companies have been working on algorithms to identify what’s true or false, accuracy prompts can decrease the spread of misinformation while also preserving user autonomy.
Sharing Intentions Tested
The natural next question is: what’s the most effective way to prompt social media users to think about accuracy, and for whom is it most effective? These researchers tested sharing intentions (not actual sharing) by asking 9,070 participants recruited using Lucid if they would share COVID-related online news cards. Of the 20 prompts, half were true and half were false, and for each, participants were asked the yes/no question: “Would you consider sharing this story online (for example, through Facebook or Twitter)?”
Prior to asking about sharing intentions for these headlines, the researchers randomized participants to receive one of 8 different accuracy prompts (don’t worry, they also had a control). The prompts that significantly increased sharing discernment (in order of effectiveness) were:
- Long Evaluation: participants evaluated the accuracy of eight non-COVID-related headlines (half true, half false). After each headline, they were (accurately) informed about whether their answer was correct or incorrect and whether the preceding headline was “a real news headline” or “a fake news headline.”
- Tips + Norms: participants were shown both the “Partisan Norms” treatment and the “Tips” treatment, in that order.
- Importance + Norms: participants were shown both the “Importance” treatment and the “Partisan Norms” treatment, in random order.
- Short Evaluation: participants were asked to evaluate the accuracy of a single non-COVID-related headline.
- Tips: participants were provided with four simple digital literacy tips.
- Importance: participants were asked, “How important is it to you that you share only news articles on social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) if they are accurate?”
The remaining two prompts — norms by themselves — did not significantly increase sharing discernment. (Does it surprise you that when it comes to misinformation, people think their opinion is the only one that matters?):
- Generic norms: participants were informed that over 80% of past survey respondents said it was important to think about accuracy before sharing.
- Partisan norms: participants were informed that 8 out of 10 past survey respondents said it was “very important” or “extremely important” to share only accurate news online, and that this was true of both Democrats and Republicans.
What This Teaches Us
Prompting people to think about the accuracy of a headline (or 8), prompting them to think about how important accuracy is to them, or providing digital literacy tips all decreased the likelihood of sharing misinformation. The researchers also found that the more inaccurate a headline seemed to participants, the more its sharing was decreased by the effective treatments. The prompts were more effective for participants who were more attentive, reflective, engaged with COVID-related news, concerned about accuracy, college-educated, and middle-aged.
These results provide a menu of accuracy prompts that could be promising to test in the field – whether by social media platforms, civil society organizations, or policymakers.
Epstein Z., Berinsky A. J., Cole, R., Gully, A., Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2021). Developing an accuracy-prompt toolkit to reduce COVID-19 misinformation online. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review. Link:https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/developing-an-accuracy-prompt-toolkit-to-reduce-covid-19-misinformation-online/
P.S. Want to learn more about how Irrational Labs is fighting misinformation? Check out our Tik Tok study which used behavioral science-informed prompts to reduce the spread of misinformation by 24%.