A new study looking into the influence of social media on the spread of conspiracy theories found that folks who use Twitter tend to resist these theories better than those on every other widely used platform. Furthermore, the study authors note that these users are more likely to be higher educated and more likely to point out false information than users of other social media platforms, helping limit the spread of such theories.
BACKGROUND: SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE RISE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
In the 21st century media landscape, social media is by far the most commonly used tool for sharing news. This growth has occurred simultaneously with an increase in the prevalence of conspiracy theories that have little, or more often zero basis in reality, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A handful of large players dominate the social media landscape, most notable Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. This led researchers to wonder which of these social media giants’ users are more likely to aid the spread of misinformation, and which are most likely to shoot these conspiracy theories down before they gain unwarranted credibility.
ANALYSIS: TWITTER USERS SMARTER AND LESS CONSPIRATORIAL
Withresults publishedin the journal New Media & Society, the team analyzed data from 17 different European countries, both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking for conspiracy theory trends. According tothe press release, this included analysis of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube “and several messaging applications such as WhatsApp.”
What they found seems to indicate that the open structure, news consumption focus and overall composition of the users on Twitter helps it resist misinformation and conspiracy theories much more successfully than closed-group social media platforms like Facebook.
“The particular operating features and characteristics of Twitter, a social network that is more focused on news consumption, increase the social pressure on what is published on it,” explains Ana Sofía Cardenal, a member of the Faculty of Law and Political Science atUniversitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC),and one of the lead authors of the study. This dynamic, she says, “could in turn perhaps reduce the circulation of unverified or alternative information compared to other social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, which have characteristics that favour the dissemination of those theories.”
Specifically, the basic architecture of the platform is more open, allowing dissenting opinions and a level of critical discourse not necessarily available on closed-set friend groups like Facebook.
According to the study authors, “This structure means that on a platform like Twitter, for example, content based on conspiracy theories can be quickly debunked or possibly ‘drowned out’ by better quality information, or by the large number of people who are willing to jump in and correct misperceptions quickly.”
By comparison, the researchers note, such an open discussion is less likely on other platforms, particularly Facebook, where groups are more curated.
“This type of social media and messaging platforms tend to be more private and protected spaces, which could increase the circulation of alternative information,” said Cardenal.
Furthermore, the authors note that there is an educational difference, as well as an interactive debating style among users of Twitter, that is different compared to the other platforms.
“Twitter users combine above average levels of education with a greater tendency to search for news and engage in political debates than those of any of the other platforms in the study,” the press release explains. “These characteristics mean they are users who seek reliable and higher quality sources of information.”
OUTLOOK: ARE SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM?
In the study’s conclusion, the researchers state that “platforms must work harder to make their products safer, especially when it comes to public health.” Specifically, they note, this is critical when it comes to the type of disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortunately, the researchers also note, “in recent months, companies have adopted measures to tag unverified or alternative information, including conspiracy theories.”
Yeah, sure they have. Whatever. I’ll just wait until my uncle shares the real story with me on Facebook.
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter:@plain_fiction