People who read Facebook news feed think they know more than they actually do

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The short article previews provided by Facebook can make users think they know more than they actually do about an issue, according to new research published in Research & Politics.

“Social media are so different from traditional types of media. In decades past, audiences had to choose to turn on the TV or open a newspaper to receive political information. Today, we receive that information inadvertently while scrolling through our Facebook and Twitter feeds. What’s more, that information can come from our friends and family members. I find these new dynamics fascinating,” said study author Nicolas Anspach, an assistant professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania.

In the study, a group of 320 participants read an article from The Washington Post about the safety of genetically modified foods. Another group of 319 participants read a mock Facebook News Feed containing four article previews, where one preview was about genetically modified foods. A third group of 351 participants, which was used as a control, did not read anything.

To test their knowledge of the subject, the participants were then asked six factual questions about genetically modified foods. To test their confidence, they were also asked to estimate the number of questions they believed they answered correctly.

Participants who read the full article answered the most questions correctly, while those who read the News Feed correctly answered only one question more often than the control group on average. But participants who read the News Feed were more likely to overestimate their knowledge, especially among those motivated to experience strong emotions.

“Social media can inform audiences, even the little article previews that appear in Facebook’s News Feed. However, with this learning comes a false confidence; some individuals (particularly those motivated by their gut reactions) think they learn more the issue than they actually do,” Anspach said.

“This overconfidence might translate to increased political participation, but concern remains over whether social media provide enough information for voters to make fully informed choices.”

“In our experiment, we used factual information to test learning. But it’s important to recognize there is a lot of garbage shared via social media. Before we get too excited about social media’s ability to inform audiences, we should also consider its potential to misinform,” Anspach explained.

In a similar study, Anspach and his colleagues found that people are more likely to believe misinformed social media comments over factual information embedded in article previews.

“I suspect future research will consider factors such as age or digital literacy to better understand how audiences react to facts and misinformation differently,” Anspach said.

The study, “A little bit of knowledge: Facebook’s News Feed and self-perceptions of knowledge“, was authored by Nicolas M. Anspach, Jay T. Jennings, and Kevin Arceneaux.


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