Social media users struggle distinguishing between real and fake news

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Social media is a unique environment to say the least. With sarcasm and serious matters taking place all at once on social media platforms, it can become difficult to determine what’s real and what’s fake. Political news surfacing in the same space as a funny meme is not always a smooth transition. Researchers at the Ohio State University say people who view a mix of entertainment and news on social media often don’t pay attention to the source.

Their study says the mistake of confusing sarcastic content with real content can occur very easily. Those who clearly separate entertainment and news feeds have less of an issue; taking the time to evaluate the source of their content.

Sites like Facebook and Twitter host a bulk of information in one spot. Although highly convenient, it can be detrimental to obtaining true information.

“We are drawn to these social media sites because they are one-stop shops for media content, updates from friends and family, and memes or cat pictures,” researcher George Pearson says in university release. “But that jumbling of content makes everything seem the same to us. It makes it harder for us to distinguish what we need to take seriously from that which is only entertainment.”

Sifting through the clutter of social media

Pearson used 370 participants and created a mock social media site called “Link Me.” Four webpages were created with two or four pages of posts in each for participants to view. All four pages have a headline and short paragraph summating the stories. Information on the source of the post was also included. Sources were outlined to be high or low credibility, based off their names and descriptions. All the posts came from actual posts from platforms like Reddit or Tumblr.

Following the viewing of the site, participants then took a survey on what drew their attention the most. Was it world affairs or news?

The results reveal participants didn’t pay much attention to the source of the content. When news and entertainment share space on the same page, the source and credibility remained as fairly irrelevant details to the reader. The distinctions between the sources usually didn’t vary, making it hard to see what’s credible.

“There is no visual distinction on Facebook between something from the New York Times and something from a random blog. They all have the same color scheme, same font,” Pearson explains.

The OSU researcher suggests social media sites come up with tactical measures to separate certain content. Until such a solution exists, it’s up to the user to provide their own filters for the content they take in.

“Right now, the structure of information platforms – especially social media – may be reducing positive media literacy behaviors,” he concludes.

The study is published in the journal New Media & Society.

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