Study Explores How People React To Fake News Online

Getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time is crucial to successful disaster response.  The rise of social media has encouraged the public to participate in the spread of information during a disaster, but unfortunately, much of that information is misinformed.

That was the finding of a new study from the University of Buffalo, which examined over 20,000 tweets during both Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing.

The researchers examined four specific false rumors, two each from both the marathon and the hurricane, including the notorious rumor that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded.  They noted three distinct kinds of behavior in terms of rumors.  Users could either spread the false news on, seek to confirm it, or cast doubt upon it.

Blindly following

It emerged that up to 91% of users actively spread false news, usually by retweeting or liking the original post.  Just 5% sought to confirm the news by seeking external verification, whilst just 1% expressed any kind of doubt as to the accuracy of the tweet.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate how apt Twitter users are at debunking falsehoods during disasters. Unfortunately, the results paint a less than flattering picture,” the authors say.

Alarmingly, the study also found that people didn’t really change their behavior even when the information had been debunked, both on Twitter and in the mainstream media.  Indeed, less than 10% would delete their ‘fake news’ tweet, and less than 20% would clarify their false tweet with a new one.

“These findings are important because they show how easily people are deceived during times when they are most vulnerable and the role social media platforms play in these deceptions,” the authors say.

The only real positive to emerge was the growing willingness of platforms such as Twitter to respond quickly to try and debunk misinformation.  It’s also worth pointing out that the study only took account of users who had reacted to the misinformation, and there may be a much bigger number who had seen it and ignored it.

With accurate information especially crucial during disasters, the work does nonetheless providing a fascinating glimpse into how people respond.