How people investigate — or don’t — fake news on Twitter and Facebook

University of Washington

Participants had various reactions to encountering a fake post: Some outright ignored it, some took it at face value, some investigated whether it was true, and some were suspicious of it but then chose to ignore it. Credit: Franziska Roesner/University of Washington

Participants had various reactions to encountering a fake post: Some outright ignored it, some took it at face value, some investigated whether it was true, and some were suspicious of it but then chose to ignore it. Credit: Franziska Roesner/University of Washington

Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, provide people with a lot of information, but it’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s not.

Researchers at the University of Washington wanted to know how people investigated potentially suspicious posts on their own feeds. The team watched 25 participants scroll through their Facebook or Twitter feeds while, unbeknownst to them, a Google Chrome extension randomly added debunked content on top of some of the real posts. Participants had various reactions to encountering a fake post: Some outright ignored it, some took it at face value, some investigated whether it was true, and some were suspicious of it but then chose to ignore it. These results have been accepted to the 2020 ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“We wanted to understand what people do when they encounter fake news or misinformation in their feeds. Do they notice it? What do they do about it?” said senior author Franziska Roesner, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “There are a lot of people who are trying to be good consumers of information and they’re struggling. If we can understand what these people are doing, we might be able to design tools that can help them.”

Previous research on how people interact with misinformation asked participants to examine content from a researcher-created account, not from someone they chose to follow.

“That might make people automatically suspicious,” said lead author Christine Geeng, a UW doctoral student in the Allen School. “We made sure that all the posts looked like they came from people that our participants followed.”

The researchers recruited participants ages 18 to 74 from across the Seattle area, explaining that the team was interested in seeing how people use social media. Participants used Twitter or Facebook at least once a week and often used the social media platforms on a laptop.

Then the team developed a Chrome extension that would randomly add fake posts or memes that had been debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes.com on top of real posts to make it temporarily appear they were being shared by people on participants’ feeds. So instead of seeing a cousin’s post about a recent vacation, a participant would see their cousin share one of the fake stories instead.

The researchers either installed the extension on the participant’s laptop or the participant logged into their accounts on the researcher’s laptop, which had the extension enabled. The team told the participants that the extension would modify their feeds — the researchers did not say how — and would track their likes and shares during the study — though, in fact, it wasn’t tracking anything. The extension was removed from participants’ laptops at the end of the study.

“We’d have them scroll through their feeds with the extension active,” Geeng said. “I told them to think aloud about what they were doing or what they would do if they were in a situation without me in the room. So then people would talk about ‘Oh yeah, I would read this article,’ or ‘I would skip this.’ Sometimes I would ask questions like, ‘Why are you skipping this? Why would you like that?'”

Participants could not actually like or share the fake posts. On Twitter, a “retweet” would share the real content beneath the fake post. The one time a participant did retweet content under the fake post, the researchers helped them undo it after the study was over. On Facebook, the like and share buttons didn’t work at all.

After the participants encountered all the fake posts — nine for Facebook and seven for Twitter — the researchers stopped the study and explained what was going on.

“It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, there were some fake posts in there.’ We said, ‘It’s hard to spot misinformation. Here were all the fake posts you just saw. These were fake, and your friends did not really post them,'” Geeng said. “Our goal was not to trick participants or to make them feel exposed. We wanted to normalize the difficulty of determining what’s fake and what’s not.”

The researchers concluded the interview by asking participants to share what types of strategies they use to detect misinformation.

In general, the researchers found that participants ignored many posts, especially those they deemed too long, overly political or not relevant to them.

But certain types of posts made participants skeptical. For example, people noticed when a post didn’t match someone’s usual content. Sometimes participants investigated suspicious posts — by looking at who posted it, evaluating the content’s source or reading the comments below the post — and other times, people just scrolled past them.

“I am interested in the times that people are skeptical but then choose not to investigate. Do they still incorporate it into their worldviews somehow?” Roesner said. “At the time someone might say, ‘That’s an ad. I’m going to ignore it.’ But then later do they remember something about the content, and forget that it was from an ad they skipped? That’s something we’re trying to study more now.”

While this study was small, it does provide a framework for how people react to misinformation on social media, the team said. Now researchers can use this as a starting point to seek interventions to help people resist misinformation in their feeds.

“Participants had these strong models of what their feeds and the people in their social network were normally like. They noticed when it was weird. And that surprised me a little,” Roesner said. “It’s easy to say we need to build these social media platforms so that people don’t get confused by fake posts. But I think there are opportunities for designers to incorporate people and their understanding of their own networks to design better social media platforms.”

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Savanna Yee, a UW master’s student in the Allen School, is also a co-author on this paper. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

From EurekAlert!

40 thoughts on “How people investigate — or don’t — fake news on Twitter and Facebook

  1. “the team developed a Chrome extension that would randomly add fake posts or memes that had been debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes.com”

    I read no further. Snopes.com is as much a purveyor of fake news as it is a exposer of it. Relying exclusively on Snopes, in my opinion, makes the entire study useless.

    • Agreed – I think Snopes at one time may have been impartial. But, while they may expose fake news, they clearly put a left leaning spin on their analysis to the point of being a purveyor, just as you stated.

      • We are all now part of the meta-study.

        People here are skeptical of the often “fake news” put out by Snopes.

        P.S. It is turtles all of the way down!

        • “the team developed a Chrome extension that would randomly add fake posts or memes that had been debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes.com”

          They “developed” this extension themselves? C’mon, it’s been operational for years across most of the MSM for years now. It’s how they generate most of their climate and geopolitical “news”.

        • I agree. And the problem is everywhere.

          It was good vs evil when we had money to waste.

          Now it stop doing stupid things….

          There is ‘fake’ news at the Wikipedia level.

          Fake news filters the topic, removing and altering material that does not support the special interest message.

          … which makes sense, as special interests rule Wikipedia and rule our beliefs.

          For example,

          There is a civilization changing fission reactor design which we have know about for 50 years.

          There is a fission reactor design…. No fuel rods, no water is the big change. A reactor design that has the fuel mixed into a liquid that has a melting point of 400C and a boiling point of 1400C in a fission reactor that is designed to operate at 650C.

          … that is six times more fuel efficient, a fifth the cost of a pressure water reactor, that has no catastrophic failure modes, that has no chemical explosions, that cannot have a fuel melt down, that operates at atmospheric pressure, that can be mass produced, that is a fifth the size, that does not require a containment building, that we built and tested in the US..

          … 50 years ago. The Test was a complete success. We hid the test results and wrote a section in the nuclear regs to make it almost impossible to test the new liquid fuel fission reactor design and yet did not even reference the successful test.

          A NASA engineer while looking for a fission reactor design to use on a moon base tracked down some of the original scientists who worked on the liquid fuel reactor test. He found the test documentation and got copies made and sent to all nuclear power departments in the government.

          … there is now a Canadian company, Terrestrial Energy, who have made a copy and upgrade of the original US design. It looks like the regulatory agency is doing everything possible to stall a design which will make pressure water fuel rod reactors obsolete.

          All of the money that we have spent on nuclear energy ‘research’ and we are still using a 1945 reactor design that is dangerous, expensive, and wastes fuel.

          • William Astley,

            There are new designs in the works that are not pressurized water reactors and the NRC is not blocking development or licensing. NuScale passed phase 4 safety review with no open action items in December and expect to pass phase 5/6 this year. They hope to have a 12 module SMR plant operational in Idaho mid 2020’s.

      • I’ve managed to track down the paper.

        https://christinegeeng.com/downloads/misinfo_geeng.pdf

        They don’t show the exact posts, but summarise them in a table. Most of them are immediately implausible, some of them are plausible (but untrue) but I saw at least one that was effectively true:

        Billionaires: meme: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the existence of billionaires was wrong [54].

        What she actually said: “a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”

        Using “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the existence of billionaires was wrong” as an example of “fake news” is stretching it, given the degree to which politicians’ words are regularly twisted without cries of “fake news”.

        Besides, if you look at Snopes’ attempt at “debunking”

        https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/aoc-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-wrong-billionaires/

        you’ll see that she is arguing for having no billionaires in a country that has poverty. Well, I’m sorry, AOC, the poor will always be with us, if only because (inevitably Leftist poverty campaigners) use statistical tricks to make it seem like people with cars, A/C, and satellite television are “poor”.

        • When the “poverty line” is defined as 60% of the median income (might not be quite accurate, but it is something like that) then there is no way to remove the poor. It makes it easy to reduce poverty just by getting rid of the billionaires and thus lowering the median income! Maybe this is what AOC is calling for?

          • Getting rid of the billionaires – and all the jobs they create will NOT eliminate poverty.
            No one gets a job from a poor person.

            Of course that’s what she’s appealing to, she wants to be that billionaire and to do that she needs the working class to poor to support that idea and vote for her. Herd mentality follows her line of thinking.

            She wants socialism – since only the elite power holders have power & the billions to them NOT for the ‘little’ people she prattles on about.

            Venezuela leaders are super rich beyond Venuzuelain standards; by over taxing their people and NOT providing essential services including adequate food and basic health care – think that’s a better system?
            There will always be poor – but to kill off capitalism is to bring in communism where you’ll get a tremendous amount of poor as everyone will be poor except the elites ‘leaders’ . History proves this, over and over again.

          • Idd,

            My favorite radio host has said for years “We all work for a rich guy” and I couldn’t agree more.

            Before anyone decides to pick this apart, yes I know some business owners don’t have money in the bank or physical assets and their workers take home more than they do but that the exception and not the rule.

        • Given the fact AOC is for open borders, for whatever definition of poverty (even a reasonable one), there will be poverty.

  2. Was this investigation an attempt to detect introspection? I don’t think so. Although presented as a scientific investigation, complete with NSF funding, the protocol does not sound either controlled or with some blind aspects. Also, I am tempted to think that more effort goes into how to utilize misinformation than goes into how to negate it.

  3. Yeah, my circuits tripped at the mention of Snopes.com. They are biased purveyors of dodgy lefty opinions.

    • I don’t do facebook or twitter but, from what others have said, they’ve become the same. Along with YouTube.
      (Anybody think that Trumps twitter account wouldn’t have been shut years ago if they thought he’d become President?)
      “Wikipedia” started out as a potentially useful thing. What has it become on “controversial” issues?

  4. I’m getting tired of Twitter asking for my phone number to ensure I’m not a bot. Do they not look at my posts? Do they not notice I respond to tweets and have replies that show I’m not a bot? Oh well. I just abandoned another account and created another. Too bad people call me a bot just because they don’t like what I have to say.

    • I just had a quick look at your page. It states:

      “These people must be really feeling the heat. But they don’t, and for good reason: preventing radiation from reaching a colder place does not cause heating back at the source. Had these people had thermometers strapped to them, they would note the virtually zero temperature rise (due to blocked convection).”

      I’m sorry, if a body normally radiates x amount of heat into colder environs, and then something – in this case, a blanket of CO2 – is preventing it radiating x, and instead it radiates 0.9x, why wouldn’t that body be warmer as a result?

      Do you refuse to sleep under a blanket in winter because “preventing radiation from reaching a colder place does not cause heating back at the source”?

      You throw a lot of numbers and formulae at the reader from the very start without explanation of what they mean and how they relate to the paragraph I quote above.

      Your page is completely unpersuasive.

        • If the radiation isn’t allowed to escape, where does it go?
          It either returns to the source or is absorbed by the medium. It doesn’t just disappear.
          If it returns to the source, then the source warms.
          If it is absorbed by the medium (in this case the atmosphere), then the atmosphere warms.

          Those are the only options.

          • MarkW,
            Even in the corpuscular photon theory, it is recognized that kinetic energy is drained to create IR emission. All that can happen with fully returning backradiation is a restoration of previous kinetic energy. Warming = 0.

          • MarkW
            If it returns to the source, then the source warms.
            If it returns to the source, the source temp doesn’t increase, that would be creating energy out of nothing. if the back radiation returns to the source it only prevents the source from cooling from the initial release
            If you stand outside in -40C temps dressed in a parka with hood, gloves, Boots, and Insulated pants for an hour, your core body temperature will remain constant (not measurably change in either direction.)
            If you go outside in -40C temps with nothing on (no insulation) your core body temperature will drop to dangerous levels within minutes (20-25)
            If you go outside in -40C temps wearing a Long Sleeve shirt and jeans and boots your core temp will gradually fall over several hours

            The radiative source doesn’t gain heat from reabsorbing it’s own back radiation it simply cools less that it otherwise would

      • “why wouldn’t that body be warmer as a result?”

        Because molecules don’t move faster if you block them.

        Funny, you don’t throw any numbers around. Care to be brave enough to make a prediction? Simply saying “it will warm” will not do.

        http://www.enthermics.com/Enthermics/Files/Uploads/f4/f400b5f2-47e1-47d4-af34-df99d07b52d4.pdf

        “Heated blankets transfer very little energy to a patient. For example, a cotton blanket heated to 93°C (200°F) would raise the temperature of the top-most layer of skin (the epidermis) by about 0.8°C”

        “So the blanket can give up all of its heat to the skin yet raise skin temperature no more than 1/80 of the 70°C temperature difference, or about 1°C. The blanket doesn’t raise skin temperature even to core
        temperature.”

        Remember this is a externally HEATED blanket at 93C!

        But according to crackpot scientists a blanket colder than you can raise your skin temperature as well.

        If that was the case why the need to heat these blankets for patients? Backradiation alone should solve all the problems.

        Look at the degeneration of science thanks to climate scammers.

    • I can’t believe this junk is still going on, at some point you just have to let stupid arguments and people go.

      • Yah. Actually, I’m waiting for Charles or Anthony to bring the ban hammer down. I didn’t think there could be one more ignorant than Griff; glad I didn’t bet anything on that.

  5. Their first mistake was using “Snopes” as a truth criterion. Second mistake is the teeny, tiny sample.

    The second is that all posts can be screened for “truth”. Every post has some truth, some falsity, some ambiguity, some nonsense, some facts, some non-facts, and more.

    Often the most important message in a post is the tone or insinuations in it that may be barely perceptible or may be blatant. Often the author is trying to convey suspicions, or biases, not a real message. If the author’s biases or feelings are obscured in order to pass a message watch out.

    Some examples: Tucker Carlson on Fox News and Jordan Peterson on his own. Both readily admit their biases up front but they still can make forceful arguments on various topics.

    James Comey, former FBI and Adam Schiff, US Representative. Neither one admits any bias. They never make cogent arguments but use combinations of bluster, falsehood, lies, and facts.

  6. Making people aware articles can be changed by a rat is good. This can be especially effective at election time.

    Total censorship or editing someone else’s post or changing the source is no different than shouting someone down or repeating what someone said and not being truthful about it.

    Tricks of the rats trade would be useful to know. How they seamlessly edit an article to make you think this is the authors words is a good thing to know.

  7. The researchers recruited participants ages 18 to 74 from across the Seattle area

    Well, this did nothing to remove “confirmation bias”

  8. So far, all of the comments on the article here are skeptical of the veracity of the study.

    Right there’s your follow-up study all ready to go, Christine Geeng (lead author).

  9. Did they include a list of the “debunked” stories?

    A lot of the things that so called academics consider “debunked”, aren’t.

  10. “Participants had various reactions to encountering a fake post”

    They really needed to conduct a study to figure that out?

    Duh.

    As a good (poorly educated) friend of mine used to say to highly educated people who did or said dumb things: “They educated you all the way up to stupid in that university didn’t they?”

  11. Snopes????????

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

    That’s where I started skimming – besides I barely use facebook and certainly not Twitter or Redit etc.

  12. “Take at face value” misses a couple of really obvious cognitive biases that should have been listed first:

    Desire to be outraged (partly because they’re constantly bombarded with ‘outrage’ news)
    Lazy

    ..and maybe:

    Gullible

  13. “Now researchers can use this as a starting point to seek interventions to help people resist misinformation in their feeds.” They use the word “misinformation” to mislead. Ironic. Should have just put the period in the sentence after the euphemism “interventions.”

  14. How about also studying news so slanted to be almost fake but still factual? I ran across one this weekend on Facebook that my liberal friends were all up in arms about. Headline was misleading but factual, body was misleading but factual, conclusion was misleading but factual so SNOPES would pass the article with flying colors even though IMO it is fake news. The entire story was written to generate anger towards Trump, his administration and a project that liberals/greens hate in Oregon.

    For the curious, feds green lit a LNG terminal while leaving it up to the state on if it will issue critical permits or not. A state that has already denied several critical permits with a governor and legislature who have come out against the project. Project was already busted once due to opposition then another company picked up the baton and is trying to push it through to the finish line. They don’t have a snowballs chance in getting it passed without a leadership change in the state or the feds stepping in to tell the state they can’t block it.

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