Menus Subscribe Search



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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.

September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.

September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.

September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.

September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.

September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.

September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.

September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.

September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.

September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.

September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.

September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.

September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.

September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.

September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.

September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.

September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.

September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.

September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.

Follow us

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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