USC researchers may have found the biggest influencer in the spread of fake news: social platforms’ structure of rewarding users for habitually sharing information.
The team’s findings, published Tuesday by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, upend popular misconceptions that misinformation spreads because users lack the critical thinking skills necessary for discerning truth from falsehood or because their strong political beliefs skew their judgment.
Just 15% of the most habitual news sharers in the research were responsible for spreading about 30% to 40% of the fake news.
The research team from the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences wondered: What motivates these users? As it turns out, much like any video game, social media has a rewards system that encourages users to stay on their accounts and keep posting and sharing. Users who post and share frequently, especially sensational, eye-catching information, are likely to attract attention.
“Due to the reward-based learning systems on social media, users form habits of sharing information that gets recognition from others,” the researchers wrote. “Once habits form, information sharing is automatically activated by cues on the platform without users considering critical response outcomes, such as spreading misinformation.”
Posting, sharing and engaging with others on social media can, therefore, become a habit.
“Our findings show that misinformation isn’t spread through a deficit of users. It’s really a function of the structure of the social media sites themselves,” said Wendy Wood, an expert on habits and USC emerita Provost Professor of psychology and business.
“The habits of social media users are a bigger driver of misinformation spread than individual attributes. We know from prior research that some people don’t process information critically, and others form opinions based on political biases, which also affects their ability to recognize false stories online,” said Gizem Ceylan, who led the study during her doctorate at USC Marshall and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale School of Management. “However, we show that the reward structure of social media platforms plays a bigger role when it comes to misinformation spread.”
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