Social media has changed the way we think about a lot of things, for better or for worse. New research about the information we receive on social media has uncovered that many of us have forgotten to do good old-fashioned fact checking and source checking when we encounter newsworthy posts in our familiar feed. It’s not because we are blindly assuming everything on social media to be true; it’s mostly because of the way news stories are cushioned in between our friends’ vacation posts and funny cat memes.
Research conducted by Ohio State University led to a study published in New Media & Society last month. The researchers explored that when we are exposed to a blend of entertainment and news sources, we are less likely to do our own research on whether the information in the news stories is accurate.
The study followed 370 participants who looked over blended entertainment and news websites on a social media platform and were then asked to rate the credibility of the posts they read. The researchers found that when the information on social media was categorized visually, such as a news section and a separate entertainment section, most people were able to distinguish if the source of the news article was credible. When the information was streamlined and jumbled in with other social media content, people paid much less attention to the source of the news content.
The potential problems with the visual social media platforms not segregating news from other types of content, such as fellow social media user posts, jokes, and memes is that people are more likely to share false information. As well as false and misinformation, people are likely to be unable to distinguish a satirical post from a truly accurate post. The study offers this as an explanation to why “fake news” can go viral so quickly and mentions that even just a clear delineation of categories would help the users interpret what was from a credible source, such as the New York Times, versus a digital publication that may use part of the name of a source that seems reliable in order to trick users into putting their trust in them.
Another problem with the way we receive information on social media platforms is the detriment of media literacy. In older, pre-social media days, people had more practice in investigating and vetting the sources of their information because they knew where to look for the information and how to verify and cross-check it with trusted references. This practice has fallen by the wayside in most instances, but it’s not because people are becoming duller—it’s because social media is visually and psychologically designed to draw the user in and keep them engaged with their platform/site. This drive for business engagement has led to very carefully designed platforms that try to keep you on their site as long as possible and discourage venturing out to cross-check the information that presents itself to you.
Younger generations who do not have as much practice in the art of research should be educated about how to find information for themselves, which ultimately helps them think for themselves. However, we can all use a reminder, regardless of age, because there are many things we encounter digitally that are designed for maximum engagement—sometimes at the risk of the user.
George Pearson. Sources on social media: Information context collapse and volume of content as predictors of source blindness. New Media & Society, 2020; 146144482091050 DOI: 10.1177/1461444820910505