USC researchers uncover the biggest influencer in the spread of fake news


Perhaps the biggest influencer in the spread of fake news has been found by USC researchers: the structure of social platforms to reward users for routine sharing of information.

The team’s findings, which they published on Tuesday Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesoverturns common misconceptions that misinformation spreads because users lack the critical thinking skills needed to distinguish truth from falsehood or because their strong political beliefs distort their judgment.

Only 15% of the most regular news participants in the research were responsible for publishing 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, asked: What motivates these users? As it turns out, like any video game, social media has a rewards system that encourages users to stay on their account and keep posting and sharing. Users who post and share frequently, especially interesting and eye-catching information, are more likely to attract attention.

“Due to reward-based learning systems on social media, users form habits of sharing information that is recognized by others,” the researchers wrote. “Once habits are formed, information sharing is automatically activated by signals on the platform without users having to think about the consequences of critical response, such as spreading misinformation.”

Thus, posting, sharing and interacting with others on social media can become a habit.

“Our findings show that misinformation does not spread through a lack of users. It’s really a function of the structure of social media itself,” said Wendy Wood, a habit expert and University Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Business at USC.

“Social media users’ habits are the biggest driver of the spread of disinformation from individual traits. We know from previous research that some people do not process information critically, while others form opinions based on political biases, which also affects their ability to identify misinformation,” she said. “Online stories,” said Jism Gillan, who led the study during her Ph.D. 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 larger role when it comes to publishing misleading information.”

In a new approach, Ceylan and her co-authors sought to understand how the reward structure of social media sites drives users to develop habits of posting misinformation on social media.

Why Fake News Spreads: Behind the Social Network

Overall, the study included 2,476 active Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 89 who, in response to online advertising, volunteered to participate. They were compensated to complete a “decision-making” survey for approximately seven minutes.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that users’ social media habits doubled and, in some cases, tripled the amount of fake news they shared. Their habits of sharing fake news were more influential than other factors, including political beliefs and lack of critical thinking.

Habitual and repeat users send fake news six times more often than casual or new users.

This kind of behavior has been rewarded in the past by algorithms that prioritize engagement when choosing what posts users see in their news feeds, and by the architecture and design of the sites themselves. Understanding the dynamics behind the spread of misinformation is important given its political, health and social consequences.”

Ian A. Anderson, second author, behavioral scientist and doctoral candidate at USC Dornsife

Experiment with different scenarios to find out why fake news is so prevalent

In the first experiment, the researchers found that regular social media users share real and fake news.

In another experiment, the researchers found that the habitual sharing of misinformation is part of a broader pattern of insensitivity to the information being shared. In fact, regular users shared politically contradictory news -; news that challenges their political beliefs -; As far as compatible news they endorsed.

Finally, the team tested whether social media reward structures could be designed to promote the sharing of true information over misinformation. They showed that incentives for accuracy rather than popularity (as is currently the case on social media) doubled the amount of accurate news shared by users on social platforms.

Study conclusions:

  • The usual sharing of misinformation is not inevitable.
  • Users can be motivated to build sharing habits that make them more sensitive to sharing authentic content.
  • Effectively reducing misinformation requires restructuring online environments that promote and support its sharing.

These findings suggest that social media platforms can take a more proactive step of modifying posted information and instead track structural changes in the reward structure to reduce the spread of misinformation.


Journal reference:

Gillan, J.; et al. (2023) Sharing misinformation is habitual, not just lazy or biased. PNAS.


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