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Animation: How misinformation spreads on social media

Posted at 3:58 PM, Sep 18, 2020

Logging onto social media platforms can provide joy for many people. Grandparents can see pictures of their grandkids. People can connect with peers or catch up on topics they follow. But in the same social media feeds are posts that seem normal but pose a danger that isn’t always obvious.

Misinformation isn’t always a clearly false statement of fact. It can be one subtle change that twists the truth. Experts say misinformation is spreading faster and easier than ever before. They’re hoping to address the issue by asking why people believe and share false information.

Researchers say the process people use to process and share information, particularly on social media, can help provide some answers. Studies show people tend to use cognitive shortcuts when they decide what to share online.

For a person sharing a particular article or picture, those shortcuts involve asking themselves:

  • Is the content consistent with what they have shared before?
  • Is the content consistent with what most others share?
  • Does the content come from a credible source?

Researchers think manipulating those factors could be key in getting people to share posts with misinformation and increase its organic reach.

Experts think age is another factor in how misinformation spreads online.

One study found people 65 and older shared seven times more misinformation on social media during the 2016 election cycle than the youngest age group studied. Researchers say a lack of digital media literacy in seniors could help explain the gap. They’re now pushing initiatives to increase literacy rates.

There’s one way researchers found to help stop people from sharing misinformation and that’s a simple reminder to consider the source and accuracy of information before sharing.