Social media platforms have revolutionized the way we communicate with one another and access and consume information. Recent research, led by Gizem Ceylan from Yale School of Management and Yale Center for Customer Insights, along with Ian Anderson and Wendy Wood from the University of Southern California, suggests that social media habits may be a key factor contributing to the spread of misinformation on these platforms. This research highlights the importance of understanding the underlying factors that contribute to misinformation on social media and provides a potential path forward for social media companies to create a safer and more reliable online environment for all users.
One important factor contributing to the spread of misinformation on social media is the reward structure inherent to habit formation on these platforms. Social media companies have designed their platforms to keep users engaged by showing appealing content, and often prioritize sensational or controversial content in order to optimize engagement. As a result, this type of content can quickly spread through users' news feeds and be broadly shared. Ceylan and colleagues' recent research sheds light on how social media users develop habits around sharing misinformation. By understanding the underlying mechanisms at play, social media companies can work to develop strategies to promote more accurate and trustworthy information on their platforms.
One important aspect that contributes to the spread of misinformation on social media is the way that users develop habits around posting and receiving attention from others. Those who have developed strong habits are more likely to respond automatically and share information when prompted by the platform, without fully considering the potential consequences, such as the spread of misinformation.
The recent research conducted by Gizem Ceylan, Ian Anderson, and Wendy Wood and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges common misconceptions that the spread of misinformation is solely due to users' lack of critical thinking skills or political bias. Instead, the study suggests that a small group of highly habitual news sharers, comprising only 15% of the participants, was responsible for spreading a significant portion (30% to 40%) of the fake news and conspiracy theories.
“The research is exciting because it shows that, with the right rewards, people can develop habits to share primarily accurate information. Thus, the spread of misinformation is really due to the reward structure of social media platforms,” said Wendy Wood, an expert on habits and USC emerita provost professor of psychology and business.
“The research estimated how much the spread of misinformation is due to the habits of social media users and how much is due to other attributes. By better understanding these factors, social media companies can work to develop strategies that promote more responsible sharing behaviors and limit the spread of misinformation,” said Gizem Ceylan.
Frequent, habitual sharers indeed forwarded six times more fake news than occasional, non-habitual sharers. “It seems that habitual sharers are less sensitive to the content of what they share, including whether it is true or false.” said Ian A. Anderson, a behavioral scientist and Ph.D. candidate at USC Dornsife. “We believe this lower sensitivity is a direct product of habit formation in online sharing. Prior research tells us that habits often cause people to perform tasks like sharing online more automatically, with little regard to the possible outcomes of our behavior”.
To address the issue of misinformation on social media platforms, there are several practical steps that companies can take beyond simply relying on content moderation. One potential solution, highlighted by the recent research conducted by Ceylan et al., is to redesign the reward structures that are currently in place on social media platforms. By incentivizing users to share accurate information rather than simply popular content, platforms could effectively double the amount of accurate news being shared by users. This represents a simple but impactful solution that could be easily implemented by social media companies. By taking meaningful steps to address the spread of misinformation, social media platforms can help to create a more trustworthy and reliable online environment for all users.