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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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