Study examines Facebook news feed and self-perception of political knowledge

A study has found that internet users who consume political information after reading short article previews on their Facebook News Feed may know more than they actually do.

“We argue that Facebook’s News Feed itself, with its short article previews, provides enough political information for learning to occur. However, this learning comes with an additional consequence: audiences who only read article previews think they know more than they actually do, especially individuals who are motivated to seek emotions,” according to researchers.

For the study, researchers recruited a group of 320 participants and instructed them to read an article by The Washington Post of a Pew survey on the safety of genetically modified foods. In another group, 319 participants read a mock News Feed with four article previews, one of which contained the topic of genetically modified foods. In a third group, 351 participants served as the control group and as a result did not consume any information.

All participants then received six factual questions regarding genetically modified foods to measure their knowledge on the topic. Researchers also tested each participants’ level of overconfidence by asking how many questions they believed they answered correctly.

Based on the results, researchers determined that participants who read the entire Washington Post article answered the most questions correctly. Participants who read the News Feed correctly, however, answered only one question correctly more often compared to the control group.

Interestingly enough, participants who read the News Feed showed a significant increase in overconfidence of their own political knowledge on the topic. “This overconfidence might translate to increased political participation, but concern remains over whether social media provide enough information for voters to make fully informed choices,” said Nicolas Anspach, a researcher at York College of Pennsylvania.

“In our experiment, we used factual information to test learning. But it’s important to recognize there is a lot of garbage shared via social media. Before we get too excited about social media’s ability to inform audiences, we should also consider its potential to misinform,” Anspach added.

“I suspect future research will consider factors such as age or digital literacy to better understand how audiences react to facts and misinformation differently.”

“Future research should continue to investigate whether emotion can help us understand the spread and influence of fake news. As Facebook is increasingly relied on as a news source, audiences’ overconfidence could be potentially troublesome, especially if the perceived knowledge gain is based on misinformation,” the study concluded.

The findings were published in Research & Politics.