A study by Gordon Pennycook from the University of Regina in Canada found that most people do not intend to share fake news, but they do not properly research the information’s accuracy before sharing it. Simply reminding people to pay more attention to the validity of new information could help solve the problem of fake news. Social media platforms could implement this new research to help reduce the reach of fake news and disinformation.

In their first experiment, Pennycook’s team asked half of the 1,002 Americans they used as subjects to rate the accuracy of 36 headlines. The researchers had some headlines that were consistent with the subjects’ political views and other headlines that contradicted them. The other half of the participants were asked to indicate whether they would share the respective articles on social media or not.

Researchers found that when asked simply to assess accuracy, the Americans were more likely to locate the factual whether or not they complied with the subject’s political opinions. When asked if they would share the information, the subjects ended up sharing headlines that agreed with their political views whether or not they were accurate.

Overall, respondents chose to share news that was false but aligned with their political views 37.4 percent of the time, while they labeled the same headlines as accurate only 18.2 percent of the time when asked simply to assess its validity. Interestingly, most study participants claimed that it was very important to them that the news they shared was accurate.

In their second experiment, the team asked 1,507 subjects to decide which political headlines they would share on social media. However, the researchers asked some of the subjects to evaluate the correctness of a random, non-political headline before they decided whether or not to share the political one.

Therefore, they drew the subject’s attention to the concept of correctness. Indeed, these were

less likely to choose to share false statements, even if they were political headlines. The researchers replicated these results in two more experiments with American citizens.

Using a field experiment, the researchers created a series of bot accounts on Twitter and sent messages to 5,379 Twitter users who regularly shared misinformation. The message asked if a random, non-political headline was accurate in order to influence the user into thinking about the concept of accuracy. During the next 24-hours, the users were more likely to share news that fact-checkers had identified as more accurate.

For their final experiment, the researchers asked 710 participants to first evaluate the accuracy of a headline and then decide whether they would share it. The percentage of false news that the subjects shared went from 30 to 15 percent.

When using social media, users are presented with a multitude of information in a short period of time. This creates a feeling of immediacy, so users feel like they must also respond to and share the information quickly. Social media platforms could implement this new research about fake news in a variety of ways. For example, they could occasionally encourage users to judge the accuracy of headlines through pop-ups in the feed.

The bottom line is, Pennycook’s research has shown that the majority of fake news is shared unintentionally due to a lack of fact-checking, not malice. That is a problem we can begin to solve simply through sharing fact-checking websites with friends and family!  

Read the full study here.