Understanding and reducing the spread of misinformation online

Pennycook, Gordon; Epstein, Ziv; Mosleh, Mohsen; Arechar, Antonio Alonso; Eckles, Dean; Rand, David Gertler

The spread of false and misleading news on social media is of great societal concern. Why do people share such content, and what can be done about it? In a first survey experiment (N=1,015), we demonstrate a dissociation between accuracy judgments and sharing intentions: even though true headlines are rated as much more accurate than false headlines, headline veracity has little impact on sharing. We argue against a “post-truth” interpretation, whereby people deliberately share false content because it furthers their political agenda. Instead, we propose that the problem is simply distraction: most people do not want to spread misinformation, but are distracted from accuracy by other salient motives when choosing what to share. Indeed, when directly asked, most participants say it is important to only share accurate news. Accordingly, across three survey experiments (total N=2775) and an experiment on Twitter in which we messaged N=5,482 users who had previously shared news from misleading websites, we find that subtly inducing people to think about the concept of accuracy decreases their sharing of false and misleading news relative to accurate news. Together, these results challenge the popular post-truth narrative. Instead, they suggest that many people are capable of detecting low-quality news content, but nonetheless share such content online because social media is not conducive to thinking analytically about truth and accuracy. Furthermore, our results translate directly into a scalable anti-misinformation intervention that is easily implementable by social media platforms.