This summary is provided by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center based on the original journal article in Science Communication

Key Findings

  • People reduce their belief in misinformation after seeing others being corrected on social media by expert sources, like well-respected government organizations.
  • Additional corrections from random users appear to slightly reduce the effect of corrections from expert sources.
  • Observing corrections from a single random user will likely not have an effect of misperceptions. Multiple corrections may be needed to leverage social norms.
  • Engaging in refutations of misinformation on social media does not appear to negatively impact reputation. More experts should consider engaging with audiences to tackle misinformation.

Implications for Public Relations

This study demonstrates the importance of correcting misinformation on social media. Social media provides an opportunity to engage individuals directly, but also allows for observational correction. When people see others being corrected, they may also correct their own misperceptions. Even if corrections don’t have an impact of the beliefs of those sharing the misinformation, they can have an effect on others that encounter it on social media.

Credibility is an important factor for whether corrections are believed or not. One common contributor to credibility is perceived expertise. Experts should be involved in monitoring social media and refute misinformation as quickly as possible, especially since it appears that there is no harm to their own reputation when they do so. In many cases, like with public health organizations, the public finds this behaviour appropriate and even expected.

Public relations professionals can leverage expertise to reduce misinformation by supporting experts to refute false claims. It is important to remember that the role of expertise in credibility is based on subjective perceptions. People that are believed to be experts are more credible, regardless of how much knowledge they actually have.

Credibility becomes even more important when there is a lack of motivation for careful evaluation, which is often the case for social media and other online communication. People look to cues like credibility for an easier and faster way to determine if they should believe information. The impact of credibility is also greater for issues that people are less personally attached too and less knowledgeable about, like new disease outbreaks.

Social media is an important avenue for communication. Unfortunately, it has also become one of the main ways misinformation is spread. Vraga and Bode conducted a study to examine how people corrected their own misinformed beliefs after seeing others corrected on social media, and the role of source credibility in all this. People believe information from those they find credible. Expertise is one contributing factor – individuals or organization believed to be experts on a particular topic are perceived as more credible.

The authors presented 1,384 participants with a simulated Twitter feed that contained a false story about the Zika virus. The story was accompanied by a correction provided by random user, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), or a combination of both. Critically, all corrections contained the same information. The CDC is widely considered as an expert source for health information and is well-respected, as one of the most positively viewed US government agencies. Participants’ misperceptions about the Zika virus were tested before and after viewing the Twitter feeds.

Participants that saw only a correction from the CDC had reduced belief in the misinformation, while those that saw one from a random user did not. However, seeing a user correction and then a CDC correction together resulted in even greater reductions in misperception. The reverse (CDC correction, then user correction) was still effective, but less than the CDC correction alone.

These findings demonstrate the potential of observational correction and importance of providing corrections through a credible source. Those that saw others being corrected revised their own beliefs, but only when the correction came from a reputable source like the CDC. Corrections on social media aren’t only useful for correcting the beliefs of people sharing misinformation, but also of anyone who may see it.

Although a user correction alone was ineffective, when a CDC correction was provided after, participants reduced their belief in misinformation. However, the reverse order resulted in a backfire effect. When participants saw a user correction repeat the CDC, it slightly reduced the corrective effect, suggesting that the people react differently to repeated corrections depending on who provides them.

The authors also tested whether or not correcting misinformation on social media affected people’s perceptions of the individuals or organizations. They found that the credibility or trustworthiness was not affected by the act of correcting misinformation, suggesting that people believe this kind of behaviour is appropriate for experts organizations like the CDC and don’t mind seeing other users correct each other.

Blog post compiled by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li. 

Vraga, E. K., & Bode, L. (2017). Using expert sources to correct health misinformation in social media. Science Communication, 39(5), 621-645.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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