During times of crisis, false information is inevitable, but rather than brush it off as a consequence of falling intelligence levels in society, it should be understood as normal crowd psychology.
When a tumultuous event occurs, two things happen: People desperately try to cope with the unfolding situation, and they rush to identify a scapegoat. As information passes from one person to another, the opportunity to find a release for their emotions and adopt a political stance overrides considerations of whether the information is accurate, leading to the inadvertent transmission of false information.
If a friend or family member posts false information on social media, research shows that most people use common sense and contact the person to let them know, resulting in a reduced probability that they will repeat the mistake.
However, a study unveiled at the ACM CHI Virtual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems last month revealed a subtle effect relating to public correction of false information. The paper found that if a person is publicly corrected after posting false information, the quality of their future posts usually deteriorates, existing political leanings become more pronounced and their language becomes more hostile.
The study was coauthored by four academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. They selected 11 news items widely circulated on the Internet that had been fact-checked by Snopes.com and identified as false. They identified nearly 3,000 people who had reposted the story on Twitter, believing it to be true, and narrowed the number down to 2,000 subjects to be used in their experiment.
Next, they created bot accounts to simulate human users. Each account had 1,500 followers and was run for more than three months to make them look genuine. The accounts sent public messages to the 2,000 subjects with a link to the Snopes fact check and a reminder to pay attention to the accuracy of news reports. The researchers measured the quality of tweets posted by the subjects 24 hours after they were corrected, and established a causal relationship between public correction and a deterioration in the quality of subsequent posts.
The methodology deserves as much attention as the results. During the selection of subjects, it was impossible to obtain a 1:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives, as US conservatives are more liable to post false information than liberals. As a result, the researchers included all of the liberal-leaning users from a sample of 3,000 and randomly selected conservative users to obtain 2,000 subjects.
However, there was still only one liberal for every three conservatives.
This shows that there is a correlation between where users sit on the US political spectrum and the proportion of reposted false information. Some careful research needs to be carried out to establish whether a similar correlation exists in Taiwan.
Another conclusion from the experiment was that, after receiving a “virtual slap in the face,” the subjects’ concern for truthfulness would often shift toward social concerns.
This stands in stark contrast to previous social media controversies in Taiwan, when people who have been publicly corrected for spreading erroneous information often have flown into a rage over the loss of face, resulting in subsequent posts becoming even more extreme.
Finally, the researchers suggested that using an obvious bot account to issue a reminder through a private message might be preferable to a public correction, while it would also avoid unintended consequences.
Certain cerebrally challenged Internet celebrities who have rashly engaged in spreading false information about COVID-19 have received their comeuppance; and many will have reveled in the public dressing-downs. Friends and family are another matter. A heavy-handed public correction could have the opposite effect to what was intended. Rather than cutting off friends or family, it would be better to send a private message with a gentle reminder. Alternatively, just leave the specific group chat or block messages from the individual, as what the eye does not see, the heart cannot grieve over.
Public chastisements do not work with most people and often have the opposite effect.
Chang Yueh-han is an assistant professor at Shih Hsin University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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