Twitter followers use friendships to fight fake news

ITHACA, N.Y. – New Cornell University research offers hope that fake news and false rumors that reverberate around the Internet can be quashed.

When Twitter users tweet a false rumor, they are more than twice as likely to accept correction if it comes from a mutual follower – someone they follow who also follows them – compared with when they are corrected by someone with whom they have no Twitter relationship, according to a study published this week in Political Communication.

“Basically, people don’t want to look foolish in front of their friends, but are less concerned with what strangers think,” said lead author Drew Margolin, assistant professor of communication at Cornell.

“Our argument in this paper is that the commitment to the truth begins at the social level. We are social beings first,” Margolin said. “We care about our friends, family – our social group – and its interests at least as much, and often more, than we care about whether something is true or false.”

And the effect of friendship appears to be stronger than the effect of politics. Twitter users in the study were less likely to accept corrections about political rumors, compared with rumors on nonpolitical topics. But if the correction – even on a political topic – came from a follower, the correction had a stronger effect; it made acceptance more likely.

“In a highly competitive political environment, warnings from friends can signal that spreading a rumor may hurt a shared cause,” Margolin said. “By contrast, admonishments from strangers may be taken as evidence that the misinformation is providing a strategic advantage.”

This research suggests a new insight into the discussion of social media and filter bubbles. Most discussion to date focuses on exposure to different kinds of information; this analysis shows that exposure to different information is often not enough to change someone’s mind. What really matters is mutual commitment between people sharing information, Margolin said.

“If we want to get others to take certain facts more seriously, we have to form personal bonds with them, rather than simply trying to find a way for an algorithm to change what flows across their screen,” Margolin said.

 

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

 

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