Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

twitter-welcome-screen

Twitter. (Photo: Gil C/Shutterstock)

Even Young People Are Skeptical of Information They Learn on Twitter

• May 19, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Twitter. (Photo: Gil C/Shutterstock)

New research suggests they react to “facts” learned from a Twitter feed with some skepticism.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.