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Think Before You Push the “Share” Button

8 March 2021

You’ve just run across a hilarious satire on a comedic news site and can’t wait to re-post it so your friends can get a chuckle. Or you’ve found an over-the-top editorial arguing for an unethical policy and want to show others the dangers of bad thinking. But before you share, take a moment to consider the potential cost of sharing stories like this. While clearly different from spreading fake news, posting satire or posting to mock may still mislead.  Your audience could be left with false beliefs or trusting in unreliable sources.

“But it’s so clearly a joke!”

The joke may be clear to your intended audience, but we often forget how many people we are connected to through social media.  Targeting a post narrowly should ensure that everyone who reads the post gets the tone. Yet often it’s easiest to share a post with a whole friend group, or to simply post things so that anyone can see them.  How likely is it that a publicly shared post will be received as intended by everyone who sees it? Unlikely in the case of satire, even less likely when you are mocking an article written in earnest.  Among your inner circle, it’s probably obvious that you are poking fun, but your wider sharing escapes this context.  So-called “context collapse” occurs when that original context is lost in the sharing. And, of course, posting widely on social media is an excellent way to accidentally generate context collapse. Your friends will get the joke, but will your grandmother? A former co-worker from two years ago? Consider how your post will be received by all the audiences you may be reaching.

“They’ll figure it out”

Even if your grandmother or former co-worker are a bit confused by your post, perhaps missing the humor and seeing an assertion to be trusted (and be honest, have you never been taken in by a satirical news story), the hope is that the confusion will be short lived.  They will eventually figure out your original intent, at that point correcting their beliefs about both you and the world. But recent work in the psychology of belief formation and revision offers alarming evidence that people are very bad at correcting false beliefs once formed – even beliefs about neutral topics and even when the correction follows original misinformation immediately!

In one study (Johnson and Seifert, 1994), subjects were exposed to a series of info-snippets written as ongoing news reports about a fire in a warehouse. One report pointed to flammable cans of paint and pressurized gas cylinders in a closet. This was corrected later in the series when the closet was reported as, in fact, empty.  Yet even when the correction was issued immediately, subjects continued to reference the misinformation to explain why the fire was so intense. In this and other experiments, corrections only reduced the repeating of the misinformation by, at most, half, and in some studies not at all! [1] Fat chance, then, that your audience, once mistaken, will come around to the joke and revise their beliefs!

“What’s the harm?”

Still, accepting the above, is it really all that bad if your reposting fools someone? After all, even if they don’t have the context to discern your intended message, they only end up convinced of a single or a few falsehoods from any given article, right? Maybe not. In re-posting, you typically share far more than a single article. In fact, you connect them with a source potentially spewing many false claims— a far more serious risk.

Your source may lead them down to rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking, linking them to wilder and wilder sources as they go. While you are not entirely responsible for that descent, you initiated a process through what I call “bent credentialing.” When your audience fails to catch your ironic tone, they may instead hear an endorsement of both an argument and, much worse, the original source. Consider, then, the potential risks the next time you run across something funny or outrageous and feel the impulse to share it.

“Should I just stop sharing?”

Definitely not.  A 2017 study by Fletcher and Nielsen showed that people who encounter news incidentally on social media are exposed to a more diverse set of news stories than those who did not use social networks. This diversity might be explained by the “weak ties” that we have with co-workers, distant relatives, etc. on social media.  These people are more likely to have a different political identity that those with whom we share strong ties. As a result, people to whom we have weak ties are poised to provide a wider range of sources to us, and we are poised to do the same for them. So sharing links can also be beneficial, we just need to cautions about how we do it.

And, as a further positive note, psychological research suggests that we can correct for misinformation if we identify it as such before sharing. The news media has increasingly resorted to this over the past four years, with headlines now reading, “Trump incorrectly claims he won the election.” Providing context via a signal, or even a laugh emoji, which your closest friends probably don’t need and might find a bit flat-footed, can make all the difference!

[1] See Lewanwoski et al (2012) for a review of these studies.

Photo by Myznik Egor on Unsplash