Group thinking helps fake news spread

Research shows people are more simple-minded when influenced by the like-minded. Andrew Masterson reports.

People in groups are more likely to accept news without checking its veracity.
Shan Shihan / Getty

Falsity loves company, it turns out.

A series of experiments by a team led by Youjung Jun of Columbia University in New York finds that people are less likely to fact-check or seek independent verification of news when it is encountered in a group context, as opposed to when it is read in isolation.

Jun’s team set up eight experiments designed to monitor how people evaluated news reports encountered through social media. The tests used 2000 volunteers, all around 36 years old.

Volunteers were asked to perform tasks such as analysing the internal logic or biases found in headlines, or evaluating the credibility of media sources.

The results across the experiments were consistent. In their study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Jun and colleagues report the data suggest “people are less likely to verify statements when they perceive the presence of others, even absent direct social interaction or feedback”.

The researchers suggest three possible explanations for the results. The first is “social loafing”, which they define as the tendency to “exert less effort” in the presence of others. In other words, some people are content to leave the business of fact-checking to their peers, especially if their own lack of activity is unlikely to be noticed.

Another possibility is a tendency to adhere to conversational norms – that is, to be scared to rock the boat by openly challenging opinions expressed.

“This tendency may be exacerbated when others are perceived to be present,” the researchers write. “Insofar as external fact checks signal scepticism, individuals may be reluctant to express doubt about a speaker’s trustworthiness in social situations.”

The third possible explanation may have much deeper roots. The absence of fact-checking in group situations might be because of “something inherent – perhaps visceral – about crowds that decreases vigilance”.

Group situations, the researchers suggest, might induce an ancient feeling of safety in numbers that, online as on the savannah, could decrease individual vigilance.

The findings could point to at least one possible explanation as to why fake news items can often gain enormous spread and influence through social media.

In light of the results, the researchers point to recent attempts by social media platforms to use algorithms and human moderators to weed out unverified news items as both useful and necessary.

However, they say, more should be done.

“Continuing to devise interventions that encourage greater informational scrutiny poses an important challenge for policymakers who wish to inspire a well-informed populace,” they conclude. “Even if we cannot exercise constant vigilance, we would do well to question our wisdom in crowds.”

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