Quirks and Quarks

Think twice about posting once — breaking the fake news cycle

People share fake news less when they're prompted to think about its accuracy

People share fake news less when they're prompted to think about its accuracy

A man dressed as "Fake News Media" participates in the annual Village Halloween parade on October 31, 2019 in New York. The proliferation of fake news on social media sites is endangering our health, environment and democracies. (Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images)

Fake news has the potential to undermine our health, environment and even democracies. It might lead you to believe that vaccines cause autism or that humans aren't responsible for climate change. Or draw you into the vortex of "alternative facts." 

According to a new study, there may be a simple solution social media companies could employ to curb the spread of disinformation.

Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural sciences at the University of Regina, came up with the after studying the psychology of why people share fake news.

"We do know that people are better at distinguishing between true and false news content than it seems based on their social media behaviour," he said in an interview on CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks

Nudging users to think about accuracy

Pennycook's research showed that if you ask people directly if they think a story is accurate, they're actually pretty good at recognizing a fake news story as false. 

"If it's the case that people are sharing false content on social media because they just don't think about the accuracy of it, then the simple solution is to just try to prompt them to think what the accuracy of it a little bit." 

That's exactly what they did in an experiment his team took to Twitter where they prompted users who had previously spread low quality news items from places like Brietbart or InfoWars to think about accuracy.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wear t-shirts reading "Do You Care Fake News?" during a roadside sign waving rally in Florida on May 15, 2019. While misinformation is nothing new, the spread of fake news reached a fever pitch during the 2016 U.S. federal election. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

After they planted the idea of checking for accuracy into the Twitter users minds, Pennycook said he tracked what else they shared for 24 hours after that.

"That little message decreased the sharing of low quality misleading content on Twitter," he said. 

Circumventing our brain's efficient emotional response

He said social media sites like Facebook and Twitter don't facilitate critical thinking.

"It's something you do often when you're just trying to get away from thinking, if you're taking a break from work or something."

He said fake news stories are designed to grab your attention by appealing to emotions like moral outrage. And when our brain is in that state, it works efficiently to allow us to react quickly to emotional situations. 

"That kind of wiring in our brain does not really coincide with the way that social media works," added Pennycook. 

If social media companies were to get behind it, we could really optimize it.- Gordon Pennycook, University of Regina

Making social media users think before they share

He said that while he saw a modest improvement in the number of fake news stories people shared after they were prompted for accuracy, Facebook or Twitter may even be able to improve upon his findings by rigorously testing this intervention on their platforms.

"If social media companies were to get behind it, we could really optimize it."

A University of Regina scientist who studied ways of reducing the spread of fake news on social media sites says Facebook and Twitter could adopt his findings to help curb this societal problem. (Toby Melville / Reuters)