Social media sites like Facebook have a reputation for spreading misinformation.
But providing corrective information through the site has the potential to reduce misperceptions – at least in some cases, according to a new study by researchers Leticia Bode and Emily K. Vraga, published in the August 2015 issue of the Journal of Communication.
To test the impact of corrective information on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the researchers asked 1,024 participants a series of questions regarding their attitudes towards GMOs.
Participants were exposed to a series of fake Facebook news feeds. All participants saw a post which shared misinformation (“GMOs make you sick”). Some participants then saw a series of links in the “Related Stories” section of the site. Some participants saw stories debunking the misinformation, while others saw stories reinforcing it, and some saw a combination of debunking and reinforcing links.
Afterwards, participants were asked a series of questions regarding their opinion of the articles and their attitudes towards GMOs.
Participants who believed that GMOs were safe before the experiment were not significantly impacted by the articles, as their attitudes remained unchanged.
Among those who held incorrect beliefs about GMOs prior to the experiment, the links were effective at reducing misconceptions.
“Our experimental evidence suggests that attitude change related to GMOs can be achieved with regards to misperceptions by virtue of exposure to corrective information within social media,” the authors write.
Importantly, a parallel experiment conducted by the researchers using the issue of vaccines and autism found that corrective information was less effective at changing attitudes. One possible explanation for these findings is that concerns over GMOs are relatively new and people may have fewer established attitudes toward the topic, “whereas the issue of whether vaccines cause autism has been in the public eye much longer, allowing people to build up their motivation and ability to resist incongruent information.”
Still, the study suggests that social media can play an important role in reducing misinformation, at least on some issues.
Leticia Bode and Emily K. Vraga, University of Wisconsin-Madison