New Research Finds Simple Corrections Can Slow Spread of Misinformation Online

Woman holding a cell phone looking out the window wondering about social media misinformation

Social media — and the rising tide of AI-generated content — has turbo-charged the spread of misinformation, pushing it around the world faster and farther than ever.

But according to new research, the key to slowing the spread of misinformation is simple: If you see something that’s false, say something.

Besir Ceka, chair and associate professor of political science, in partnership with Florian Stoeckel, Jason Reifler and Chiara Ricchi from the University of Exeter (UK), Sabrina Stöckli from the University of Zurich (Switzerland), and Ben Lyons from the University of Utah, found that even the smallest pushback on rumors or fake news can slow its spread. 

Simple corrections — rather than complex explanations — are sufficient to reduce the perceived accuracy of and engagement with false news posts on social media, suggests a study of more than 6,600 participants from the UK, Germany and Italy published in the Nature portfolio journal Communications Psychology

The open-access study is available on the Communications Psychology website

Ceka, who has focused his research on the erosion of democratic norms, specifically on the popularity of conspiracy theories and misinformation, provided additional information on his findings.

Are we helpless against the onslaught of fake news?

Our research shows that not only are we not helpless, individual users are an effective tool in fighting misinformation. 

Centralized solutions are not always effective. The social media platforms themselves cannot keep up. Fact-checking on the scale of Facebook or X are difficult to implement and even if they could, trust in experts and authorities is at a low ebb. So, corrections offered by experts may not be very effective. 

Instead of being centralized, we found this work can be democratized. One person saying something proved surprisingly effective.

So, just one person saying a post is inaccurate or false can make a difference? 

Yes, and the fascinating thing is we expected bolstered corrections, either through fact-checking links or amplified by likes, to lead to more reduction. The robustness of the correction had no effect. 

You don’t have to provide substantive reasoning or links. Just disapproving of a message is enough. 

Of course, that also proved to be a double-edged sword. Corrections flagging true posts as false also decreased the perceived accuracy of and engagement with accurate posts. 

So, what’s a reader to do? How do we know if something is true online?

The real challenge is that we tend to be less scrutinizing of info that we agree with. If you’re just scrolling through social media, you tend not to be processing those kinds of comments at a deep level. Nonetheless, it affects our behavior. 

The best rule is just to dig deeper. Click the links, check it out. If you are sure that a social media post is inaccurate, write a short comment saying so. 

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