False memories are an insidious intrusion into our minds, helping to shape our opinions and confirm our prejudices. A body of research has shown that a piece of misinformation can linger in the mind, outliving the caveat that it is nothing more than rumor or speculation. If it conforms to our beliefs, we’ll tuck it away and use it as evidence later on.
It’s reasonable to fear that social media could exacerbate this problem. With news feeds giving us constant updates from many sources—some reliable, some not—it’d be very easy to conflate fact with conjecture.
So a new research paper from Michigan State University is particularly welcome. It finds that a sample of college students were, in fact, less likely to fall for false information if it had been presented to them in a Twitter format.
“It’s a good sign,” said lead author Kimberly Fenn, a psychologist based at Michigan State University. “Our findings indicate young people are somewhat wary of information that comes from Twitter.”
With news feeds giving us constant updates from many sources—some reliable, some not—it’d be very easy to conflate fact with conjecture.
The study featured 96 undergraduates, who “viewed a series of 50 images that depicted a story of a man robbing a car.” Each of the photos was on the participants’ computer screens for five seconds; together, they told a coherent story of what had happened.
After performing an unrelated task, the students viewed an information feed that narrated the events depicted in the images via 40 lines of text. They were told it was created by students who had seen the photos in a previous round of the experiment.
Approximately one-third of the participants saw this information in a “control feed,” which was labeled “photo recap” and “did not contain censorship bars or social media.” The others saw it in a format that virtually duplicated a Twitter feed; it was labeled “tweet ticker” and “had a light blue background and an image of the Twitter bird logo in the bottom right corner.”
To test whether memories were impacted by the informal language often used on Twitter, the researchers broke up those getting the mock-Twitter feed into two groups.
One viewed a text that was identical to that of the control group; it was written in relatively formal language and use complete sentences. The others saw a feed that “was designed to resemble text online; it was written with informal language and syntax,” the researchers write.
Afterwards, all participants were presented with 36 statements and asked how confident they were that each was an accurate representation of what they saw in the images.
“While most of the information was accurate, each participant was exposed to six details that directly conflicted with the images,” the researchers write. One such piece of misinformation was the statement “The car had a Harvard sticker in the back window.” In fact, it had a John Hopkins sticker.
The key result: Participants’ confidence in accurate information was consistent for the three groups, “but confidence for suggested information was significantly lower when false information was presented in a Twitter format.”
This held true whether the Twitter-feed language was formal or informal, suggesting that the medium itself, as opposed to the language, that made the students more skeptical.
“It is unclear whether our results would extend to other forms of social media, or to more verified sources on Twitter,” the researchers write. “Twitter is unique in that individuals often receive information from other individuals whom they have never met. In contrast, if the same information were presented in a Facebook feed, by a friend or acquaintance, we might obtain an opposite finding.”
So it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that Facebook could be used to successfully spread misinformation. Twitter, not so much.
This study provides further confirmation of Marshall McLuhan’s famous proclamation that the medium is the message—or, at the researchers put it, “individuals approach messages differently when they are delivered through different types of media.”
Thankfully, it suggests that in the case of Twitter, young people view the information it conveys with a healthy dose of skepticism.