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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Social Media and Misinformation

 In The Politics of Autism, I examine the role of social media in the development of the issue

Budak, C., Nyhan, B., Rothschild, D.M. et al. Misunderstanding the harms of online misinformation. Nature 630, 45–53 (2024).


The controversy over online misinformation and social media has opened a gap between public discourse and scientific research. Public intellectuals and journalists frequently make sweeping claims about the effects of exposure to false content online that are inconsistent with much of the current empirical evidence. Here we identify three common misperceptions: that average exposure to problematic content is high, that algorithms are largely responsible for this exposure and that social media is a primary cause of broader social problems such as polarization. In our review of behavioural science research on online misinformation, we document a pattern of low exposure to false and inflammatory content that is concentrated among a narrow fringe with strong motivations to seek out such information. In response, we recommend holding platforms accountable for facilitating exposure to false and extreme content in the tails of the distribution, where consumption is highest and the risk of real-world harm is greatest. We also call for increased platform transparency, including collaborations with outside researchers, to better evaluate the effects of online misinformation and the most effective responses to it. Taking these steps is especially important outside the USA and Western Europe, where research and data are scant and harms may be more severe.

From the article:

[E]xposure is concentrated among a small fraction of the population. For example, the 20% of US citizens with the most conservative information diets were responsible for 62% of visits to the 490 untrustworthy websites described above during the 2016 campaign. Similarly, 6.3% of YouTube users were responsible for 79.8% of exposure to extremist channels from July to December 2020, 85% of vaccine-sceptical content was consumed by less than 1% of US citizens in the 2016–2019 period, and 1% of Twitter users were responsible for 80% of exposures to links from dubious websites during and immediately after the 2016 US presidential campaign. Although these studies draw on different data, they reach similar conclusions. 

 Guess, A. M., Nyhan, B., O’Keeffe, Z. & Reifler, J. The sources and correlates of exposure to vaccine-related (mis)information online. Vaccine 38, 7799–7805 (2020). This paper shows hows how a small portion of the population accounts for the vast majority of exposure to vaccine-sceptical content.