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The findings have implications for how social media companies can stem the flow of misinformation

Social media companies urged to tackle misinformation with accuracy prompts

Reminding social media users about accuracy could reduce the sharing of misinformation online, a new study finds.

The study, published in Nature, finds that most social media users spread fake news not because they are less concerned with truth and accuracy, but because they are distracted or not paying attention.

Researchers including from the University of Exeter Business School believe simple interventions to reduce the spread of misinformation could shift attention towards accuracy and help social media users become more discerning about what they share.

The research team reached their conclusions by conducting a series of surveys and field experiments.

In one survey, involving around 850 social media users, the researchers found that even though people were able to identify that the ‘true’ headlines they were shown were more accurate, headline veracity had little impact on sharing.

The researchers claim sharing inaccurate information is less down to political allegiance than how the social media context focuses users’ attention on factors other than truth and accuracy. 

Indeed most participants when asked said it was important to only share news that is accurate – even when they had just indicated they would share numerous false headlines minutes before.

“Our research shows that people are actually often fairly good at discerning falsehoods from facts, but in the social media context they’re distracted and lack the time and inclination to consider it,” said co-lead author Dr Mohsen Mosleh, Lecturer in Business Analytics at the University of Exeter Business School. 

Subsequent survey experiments with thousands of US social media users found that subtle prompts to consider accuracy cut the sharing of misinformation significantly.

The team also conducted a field experiment with more than 5,000 Twitter users who had previously shared news from websites known for publishing misleading content.

The researchers used bot accounts to send the users a message asking them to check the accuracy of a random non-political headline – and found that this simple accuracy prompt significantly improved the quality of news the users subsequently retweeted.

The findings have implications for how social media companies can stem the flow of misinformation, with the researchers suggesting platforms implement simple accuracy prompts to shift users’ attention towards the reliability of the content they read before they share it.

This approach, the researchers point out, would preserve user autonomy and wouldn’t require social media companies to be the arbiters of truth.

The study 'Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online' is published in Nature.

Date: 17 March 2021

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