NEW YORK — Is social media the key to fake news thriving? A new study finds that people are less likely to fact-check a story when the article is shared in a group setting.
Researchers at Columbia Business School conducted eight related, computer-based social experiments, hoping to find how the presence of others affected one’s tendency to evaluate information and claims of questionable veracity.
One experiment split participants into one of two groups to log onto a computer program and indicate whether or not they believed various U.S. news headlines. In one of the groups, individuals were shown the usernames of fellow participants on a sidebar, while the other group could only see their own username. The researchers found that people who were shown the names of others taking part were less likely to fact-check the statements presented.
That means social media users may be more prone to believing a fake news story is real and less inclined to investigate the story themselves if they see it’s being shared and commented on by numerous people on a social media site.
While none of the eight experiments indicated that individuals would fall for just anything, the introduction of a social dynamic did decrease the likelihood that the information presented would be met with significant scrutiny.
The researchers hypothesized three possible reasons for this behavior, ultimately agreeing that the most likely explanation was that the feeling of “safety in numbers” leads many to let down their guard.
Although those who felt solidarity checked their statements 35 percent less of the time on average, this effect was inverted in another experiment when participants were conditioned to act with vigilance toward the headlines presented.
“Animals in the wild hide out and feel safer in herds and, similarly, we feel safer in a crowd,” says lead researcher Gita Johar, a Columbia business professor, in a news release. “When applied to information consumed on social media, this same instinct results in lower fact-checking.”
Considering both the spread of fake news and the amount of time an average American spends on social media— two hours a day— how our favorite networks infiltrate our minds is worthy of careful consideration.
The full study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.