The University of Kansas has recently published a study conducted with the goal of examining what makes people susceptible to false news about health. Researchers propose a question about the position big tech companies have in spreading unverified information online. They also highlight the responsibility of such companies for taking the steps to help prevent this phenomenon.
Researchers created a fake article about vitamin B17 causing cancer and shared it with 750 participants. The fact is, there is no such thing as vitamin B17 and they wanted to examine how will the way the article was presented affect participants’ perception of the credibility of the information. The question was also how inclined would they be to share the content on their social media. To do that, they varied the style, professional credentials of the authors, and how they labeled the article (is it flagged as suspicious or not).
They found that how the articles were presented did not have a role in people’s decisions and that knowledge about social media is the only factor that affected their decision to share it. There was a total of eight different versions of the article that were shared with the participants. One version was presented as if it was written by a doctor followed by a short biography and their professional credentials, as well as their byline. In other versions, the author persona was a mother who has experience in creative writing and writes blogs about lifestyle. As far as writing style, they varied from journalistic articles to ones with a more informal tone of voice.
The authors of this study suggest that individuals are generally not very invested in determining the credibility of the news they encounter online. Mental work is required when people are evaluating whether the content is trustworthy or not for themselves. They have a tendency to trust tech companies to provide credible resources of information online. This is the reason why the authors highlight the importance of these companies taking the responsibility for the content they present to their users.
Social media efficacy is a factor that stood out when it comes to being more careful in evaluating information. People with more knowledge and better skills when it comes to technology were generally more careful to trust the information presented to them. They were also less inclined to decide to share the content.
Interest in information about health was not an important factor when it comes to information evaluation. However, what is important is that people who seek this type of content, are more inclined to share the articles they found, whether it is accurate and verified or not. The research shows that writing style and credentials don’t have a significant impact on how people perceive the accuracy of articles or on their adherence to share and recommend them.
On the other hand, it was significant whether or not there was a flag implying that there is unverified information in the article. If the article was flagged, people were more hesitant to trust, share, and recommend it. This is where the significance of big companies’ responsibility comes to light even more. Social media and other companies need to provide verified content and add labels if it is false, unverified, and dangerous. This plays a big part in preventing fake news from spreading. Flagging content makes the consumers more cautious and skeptical. By doing this, big tech companies can create an environment where people can trust and share verified information. We see now more than ever, during a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic why having reliable information is so important.