Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fast forward

In today's contribution from the Unintentional Irony Department, we have: a study out of the University of Buffalo that examined the pervasiveness of false information on Twitter, which a Twitter user summarized incorrectly, then posted the inaccurate summary...  on Twitter.

The study, which appeared in the May 11 issue of the journal Natural Hazards, looked at the responses of people who interacted with tweeted false information following Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon shootings.  What they found was interesting, if a little disheartening.  Of the people who chose to respond to the false tweets:
  • 86 to 91 percent of the users fostered the spread of the false news, either by retweeting or "liking" the original tweet;
  • 5 to 9 percent looked for confirmation, most often by retweeting and requesting anyone who had accurate information to respond.
  • 1 to 9 percent were dubious right from the get-go, and said they had information indicating the original tweet was incorrect.
So it's kind of discouraging that given tweets the researchers knew were false, only around ten percent of the people who chose to respond even asked the question of whether the content of the tweet was factually correct.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ibrahim.ID, Socialmedia-pm, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Jun Zhuang, lead author of the study, was up front about how alarming this is.  "These findings are important because they show how easily people are deceived during times when they are most vulnerable and the role social media platforms play in these deceptions," Zhuang said.  However, he also pointed out what was the first thing that occurred to me when I read the study.  "[However], it's possible that many people saw these tweets, decided they were inaccurate and chose not to engage."

Which, despite my frequently combative attitude here at Skeptophilia, is how I usually approach that sort of thing online.  I've found that posting rebuttals to total strangers seldom accomplishes anything, more often than not resulting in your being called a know-it-all or a deluded mouthpiece for the [fill in with your favorite political party] or simply a hopeless dunderhead.  So my guess is -- and it is just a surmise -- that the people who actually chose to interact with the tweets in question were (1) a minority, and (2) heavily skewed toward ones who already had a tendency to believe the claim in question.

In other words, yet another example of confirmation bias.

Which is what makes where I found out about this study even more wryly amusing.  Because I got the link to the Zhuang et al. study on Twitter -- from a tweet that said, "STUDY SHOWS THAT 90% OF WHAT YOU READ ON TWITTER IS FALSE!"

Well, as I hope I don't need to point out to loyal readers of Skeptophilia, that is actually not what the study said.  Not even remotely.  So a tweet saying that 90% of what's on Twitter is false was false itself.

And, for the record, I didn't respond to it, unless you consider this post a response, which I suppose it is.

What compounds this whole thing is the tendency of people to retweet (or repost) links after only having read the headline -- witness the Science Post article with the headline, "Study: 70% of Facebook Users Only Read the Headline of Science Stories Before Commenting," which was shared all over the place, despite the fact that the article contained no links to any studies, just repeated the claim in the headline, and followed up with several iterations of "Lorem Ipsum:"
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.  Nullam consectetur ipsum sit amet sem vestibulum eleifend.  Donec sed metus nisi.  Quisque ultricies nulla a risus facilisis vestibulum.  Ut luctus feugiat nisi, eget molestie magna faucibus vitae.  Morbi luctus orci eget semper fringilla.  Proin vestibulum neque a ultrices aliquet.  Fusce imperdiet purus in euismod accumsan.  Suspendisse potenti.  Nullam efficitur feugiat nibh, at pellentesque mauris.  Suspendisse potenti.  Maecenas efficitur urna velit, ut gravida enim vestibulum eu.  Nullam suscipit finibus tellus convallis lacinia.  Aenean ex nunc, posuere sit amet mauris ac, venenatis efficitur nulla.  Nam auctor eros eu libero rutrum, ac tristique nunc tincidunt.  Mauris eu turpis rutrum mi scelerisque volutpat.
I wonder how many people shared that article after only reading the headline.

Speaking of irony.

So anyway, I'll just beseech you once again to read the whole article before you evaluate it, and evaluate the whole article before you share it.  Ask questions.  Look for supporting information.  Consult such fact-checking sites as Snopes and PolitiFact.  Consider source bias -- and the natural tendency to confirmation bias we all have.

Because the last thing we need is more people blindly fast-forwarding fake news.


This week's recommended book is an obscure little tome that I first ran into in college.  It's about a scientific hoax -- some chemists who claimed to have discovered what they called "polywater," a polymerized form of water that was highly viscous and stayed liquid from -70 F to 500 F or above.  The book is a fascinating, and often funny, account of an incident that combines confirmation bias with wishful thinking with willful misrepresentation of the evidence.  Anyone who's interested in the history of science or simply in how easy it is to fool the overeager -- you should put Polywater by Felix Franks on your reading list.

No comments:

Post a Comment