How inattention to accuracy increases the likelihood of COVID-19 misinformation

In early-2020, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared an ‘infodemic’ given the wealth of misinformation and disinformation on social networking sites pertaining to the recent coronavirus pandemic.

Cycles of disinformation perpetrated by countries such as China, Iran, and the United States, have led to a perilous spreading of health-related content on social media, distorting users’ choices of what should be shared on news feeds.

To understand how to combat the ongoing flow of false information on social media, a group of researchers did a comprehensive examination of what drives users incapable of properly distinguishing non-accurate from accurate stories. The findings were published in Psychological Science.

“People often assume that misinformation and fake news is shared online because people are incapable of distinguishing between what is true and what is false,” according to the study’s lead author.

“Our research reveals that is not necessarily the case. Instead, we find that people tend to share false information about COVID-19 on social media because they simply fail to think about accuracy when making decisions about what to share with others.”

The research group, comprised of experts from the University of Regina and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recruited over 1,500 US-based adult participants as part of two studies.

In their studies, the participants were presented with headlines from a list of 15 inaccurate and 15 accurate headlines associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Established sites considered to be of the highest factual accuracy, such as Live Science and Mayo Clinic, played a major role in determining which headlines to utilize and post on Facebook.

From the posts shown on the social networking platform, the participants were asked if what they saw was accurate or if they would share it on their own news feed.

In the first study, researchers concluded that users tend to prevalently refrain from considering accuracy when deciding what to post on their news feeds, increasing the risk of sharing false information.

For the second study, it was determined that an accuracy reminder implemented at the beginning of the experiments heightened the decision-making process, decreasing the instances of false information posted on news feeds.

“Our results, which mirror those found previously for political fake news, suggest that nudging people to think about accuracy is a simple way to improve choices about what to share on social media,” the co-authors implied in their findings.

“This research has important theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, our findings shed new light on the perspective that inattention plays an important role in the sharing of misinformation online. By demonstrating the role of inattention in the context of COVID-19 misinformation (rather than politics), our results suggest that partisanship is not, apparently, the key factor distracting people from considering accuracy on social media.”

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