Negligence, Not Politics, Drives Most Misinformation Sharing

John Timmer at Wired: “…a small international team of researchers… decided to take a look at how a group of US residents decided on which news to share. Their results suggest that some of the standard factors that people point to when explaining the tsunami of misinformation—inability to evaluate information and partisan biases—aren’t having as much influence as most of us think. Instead, a lot of the blame gets directed at people just not paying careful attention.

The researchers ran a number of fairly similar experiments to get at the details of misinformation sharing. This involved panels of US-based participants recruited either through Mechanical Turk or via a survey population that provided a more representative sample of the US. Each panel had several hundred to over 1,000 individuals, and the results were consistent across different experiments, so there was a degree of reproducibility to the data.

To do the experiments, the researchers gathered a set of headlines and lead sentences from news stories that had been shared on social media. The set was evenly mixed between headlines that were clearly true and clearly false, and each of these categories was split again between those headlines that favored Democrats and those that favored Republicans.

One thing that was clear is that people are generally capable of judging the accuracy of the headlines. There was a 56 percentage point gap between how often an accurate headline was rated as true and how often a false headline was. People aren’t perfect—they still got things wrong fairly often—but they’re clearly quite a bit better at this than they’re given credit for.

The second thing is that ideology doesn’t really seem to be a major factor in driving judgements on whether a headline was accurate. People were more likely to rate headlines that agreed with their politics, but the difference here was only 10 percentage points. That’s significant (both societally and statistically), but it’s certainly not a large enough gap to explain the flood of misinformation.

But when the same people were asked about whether they’d share these same stories, politics played a big role, and the truth receded. The difference in intention to share between true and false headlines was only 6 percentage points. Meanwhile the gap between whether a headline agreed with a person’s politics or not saw a 20 percentage point gap. Putting it in concrete terms, the authors look at the false headline “Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests.” Only 16 percent of conservatives in the survey population rated it as true. But over half of them were amenable to sharing it on social media….(More)”.