News on Facebook create the illusion of knowledge and reduce motivation to search for information

Facebook, which has been heavily criticised (and is facing the threat of heavy fines) for failing to stop the publication of fake news on its platform, is now trying to educate its users on how to spot fake news. The company published a list of ten tips directing users to look for specific elements such as whether the URL mimics that of an authentic news source, whether the photos have been manipulated, or whether other news sources are reporting the same story.

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The problem with this approach is that the Facebook users most likely to follow those tips are exactly those least likely to need them. Why? Because such users would already be reading a variety of news sources and, thus, would be less prone to be influenced by the fake news.

 

Research done by Philipp Müller, Pascal Schneiders and Svenja Schafer*, in Germany, found that being exposed to news posts on Facebook led some users to feel well informed and, consequently, to not search for alternative sources of information, such as visiting an external news website.

What is important to note here is that this feeling of being well informed was driven by simply noticing news articles on one’s feed, not by actually reading those articles and, hence, regardless of actual knowledge acquisition. This effect was particularly significant for Facebook users with a low need for cognition; that is, users who are not intrinsically curious and who have little motivation to seek and process information.

This interaction between the perception of being well informed due to being exposed to news (rather than consuming the news) and the low motivation to consume complex information has negative implications for society. As the authors say:

News content on Facebook thus appears to contribute to the formation and widening of societal knowledge gaps. (…) Individuals with a low need for cognition use other news sources less often if they feel sufficiently informed through Facebook. (…) Individuals seem to interpret the mere presence of news posts within their news feed and their own exposure to this feed as an indicator for their own high news knowledge-regardless of whether they actually read and process the news they encounter. This leaves room for the assumption that news content on Facebook can induce an illusion of knowledge, at least for some users. (page 439)

 

The findings from this study also have important implications for content producers in general (i.e., not just news organisations), specially those serving users not particularly interested in the topic, already, and those not willing to invest the time and effort to learn about it. For instance, a blogger producing fitness and nutrition content, and trying to reach audiences with sedentary lifestyles.

On the one hand, the blogger wants to share content on Facebook to reach new audiences and to entice them to visit the blogger’s own website – for instance, to subscribe to a newsletter, to read other blog posts, or to learn more about the brand. On the other hand, the more content such Facebook users are exposed to on that platform, the less likely they are to visit the blogger’s website.

This study accentuates the need to understand the audience. We need to know not only how our audience consumes information, but also what their level of curiosity about the topic is, and assess their willingness to engage with complex information.

It is also known that individuals with high need for cognition are information oriented, whereas those with low need for cognition are entertainment oriented. Thus, how we communicate becomes as important as what we communicate, especially if we are targeting a new / reluctant audience.

Titles also become extremely important. If we want the audience to learn something, then we should craft informative titles that capture the essence of what we need to say  – like the title of this blog post, for instance. The kind of title that gets the message across, even if the reader does not actually read the article.

However, if we want to attract readers to our website, then the title needs to work as a teaser, instead. Something of the kind “You won’t believe what happens when you see news on Facebook”. It needs to be a title that encourages Facebook users to click on the link, and read your (entertaining) article or blog post.

 

Bad news for academics, who are famously bad at crafting titles and making their writing entertaining 😉

 

* I could not find a free version of the paper. The paid version is accessible here. The details are: Müller, P., Schneiders, P. and Schäfer, S (2016) Appetizer or main dish? Explaining the use of Facebook news posts as a substitute for other news sources, Computers in Human Behavior, 65(December), 431-441, http://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.09.003.

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