Over the last few years, so-called “fake news” — purposefully untrue misinformation spread online — has become more and more of a concern. From extensive media coverage of the issue to government committees being set up for its investigation, fake news is at the top of the agenda — and more often than we’d like, on top of our newsfeeds.
But how does exposure to misinformation impact the way we respond to it? A new study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that the more we see it, the more we’re likely to spread it. And considering the fact that fake news is more likely to go viral than real news, this could have worrying implications.
From digital detoxes to the recent Silicon Valley fad of “dopamine fasting”, it seems more fashionable than ever to attempt to abstain from consuming digital media. Underlying all of these trends is the assumption that using digital devices — and being on social media in particular — is somehow unhealthy, and that if we abstain, we might become happier, more fulfilled people.
But is there any truth to this belief? When it comes to social media, at least, a new paper in Media Psychology suggests not. In one of the few experimental studies in the field, researchers have found that quitting social media for up to four weeks does nothing to improve our well-being or quality of life.
What is it about social media that makes discussions about controversial topics so caustic and unpleasant? A variety of reasons have been put forward — such as the tendency for outrage to self-perpetuate, as we reported earlier this week. But now a new study, published in PLoS One, implicates a concept so far explored in philosophy rather than psychology. This is “moral grandstanding” — publicly opining on morality and politics to impress others, and so to seek social status.
Spend any amount of time online and you’re likely to see the same patterns repeat themselves over and over again: somebody says something offensive or controversial on social media, they’re met with anger and disgust, and they either apologise or double down.
For some, this cycle has become somewhat of a career, with the garnering of outrage forming the backbone of their (often incredibly tedious) public personas. But does responding to such toxic or offensive remarks, especially en masse, actually work? Or does it simply increase sympathy for the offender, no matter how bigoted their remarks were to begin with?
According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the latter is more likely. The paper looked at the impact of viral outrage on convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy — and found that as outrage increased, observers believed it was “more normative” to express condemnation, but simultaneously believed that outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender.
At 8:07am on a Saturday morning in early 2018, phones throughout Hawaii buzzed with a distressing message. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter,” it read. “This is not a drill.” Similar warnings interrupted television and radio transmissions. And until a follow-up message 38 minutes later clarified that it had been a false alarm, many residents were left expecting the worst.
But according to a new study published in American Psychologist, the toll on Hawaii residents lasted much longer than those terrifying minutes. Researchers analysing the kinds of words tweeted before and after the false alarm have found that anxiety seemed to be heightened for days — particularly among those who appeared the least anxious to begin with.
You might imagine – as prior research suggests many people do – that putting your feelings into words will only intensify them. In fact, many laboratory studies have found the opposite to be true. Stating out loud, or writing down, what you are feeling – a process that psychologists call “affect labelling” – seems to down-regulate emotions, diminishing their intensity.
Now an intriguing study has explored this phenomenon outside of the lab, analysing over a billion tweets to find examples of when people used a tweet to put their emotional state into words. From analysing the emotional language used in preceding and subsequent tweets, Rui Fan and his colleagues were able to see how the act of affect labelling influenced the course of an emotional state. “We found that, for a majority of individuals, emotional intensity decreased rapidly after their explicit expression in an ‘I feel’ statement,” the researchers write in their paper in Nature Human Behaviour.
Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
Students showed less comprehension of the items they’d chosen to repost.
What fun it is to write something on Twitter or Facebook and see lots of people repost what you said – no matter the disclaimers in people’s online profiles, we usually interpret reposts of our comments as a mark of endorsement. However, a new study in Computers in Human Behavior puts a bit of a downer on things. The researchers based at Peking University and Cornell University say that the very option to share or repost social media items is distracting, and what’s more, the decision to repost is itself a further distraction and actually makes it less likely that readers will have properly understood the very items that they chose to share.
The research was conducted with dozens of Chinese undergrad users of the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (very similar to Twitter). In one study, the students had to read forty short (maximum 140 Chinese character) Weibo posts about a recent controversial issue in China – whether or not to help elderly people who have fallen over. Half the participants had the option to repost the items, whereas the others did not. The key finding was that the group who had the option to repost each item performed less well in a subsequent comprehension test of the 40 Weibo posts. Moreover, the participants who could repost made twice as many errors for the posts they had reposted than those they hadn’t. Why should this be? “The feedback function encourages individuals to make quick responses, taking away the time individuals would otherwise use to cogitate and integrate the content information they receive,” the researchers said. They added: “This finding has overarching implications given that the majority users of micro-blogging sites only read and repost others’ messages”.
A second study was similar, with some students given the option to repost Weibo items and others not given this option, but this time the Weibo part of the task was followed by a reading comprehension test on a New Scientist article. The finding – students who’d had the reposting option on Weibo performed worse at the subsequent reading comp test, and this seemed to be because they were more mentally tired after reading the Weibo posts. The researchers said: “When we are reposting and sharing information with others, we unwantedly add burden to our cognitive resources and, as a result, our own understanding of the information is compromised and our subsequent learning hindered.”
Stigma is a problem for all forms of mental illness, but arguably obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – a condition that at its most severe can ruin lives – is subject to a disproportionate amount of trivialisation and ridicule.
A brief perusal of the hashtag #OCD on Twitter makes this obvious – the term is used frequently everyday to lampoon fussy, perfectionist behaviours. A new study asks how this Twitter trivialisation affects other users’ views of the condition and of the people who do the trivialising.
Rachel Pavelko and Jessica Myrick created several fictional Twitter accounts (half were male, half female), together with bio, avatar and 15 recent tweets. Half of the fictional account users self-identified as having OCD. Their bios said: “Enjoy friends and good movies. Making my way through this world with a diagnosis of OCD.” (A self-identifying hashtag–#livingwithOCD–was also included in their tweets). The other accounts without an OCD identity had bios that said: “I love: friends, good movies, sports, and ice cream.”
For each of the accounts, nine of the visible tweets were fillers and said things unrelated to OCD like:
“When I’m old, I’m totally using the scooters at the grocery store.”
For the OCD tweets, some accounts always framed the condition respectfully and in clinical terms, as in:
“It’s not easy to deal with, but therapy and my great support system certainly help me everyday. #livingwithOCD”.
“Raising money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness to support my aunt in her struggle with #OCD”
Other accounts always trivialised the condition, with tweets like:
“Can’t stand all these crazy perfectionist people in my office. Not impressed that your file folders are alphabetized. #ThatsSoOCD.”
The remaining accounts featured a mix of serious and trivial OCD tweets.
Nearly 600 participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site (just over half were male, the average age was 33), a minority of whom reported having OCD (3.9 per cent) or other mental illness (29.2 per cent), or having a family member with OCD (9.3 per cent). Each participant looked at one of the Twitter accounts and answered questions about their feelings towards the fictional person and about people with OCD in general.
Good news: those participants shown accounts that trivialised OCD were no more likely to say they wanted to keep their distance from people with the condition. More good news: people who self-identified as having OCD on Twitter, regardless of how they tweeted about their condition, were in general like more by the participants than those who didn’t. And what about the accounts where the person didn’t have OCD but wrote tweets that trivialised the condition? Such accounts were liked less by the participants than those that treated the condition with respect.
“This implies,” the researchers said, “that trivialisation, while seemingly cute or done in jest, can actually backfire for social media users.”
The researchers also said that the positive reaction among participants to the fictional account holders with OCD suggests that Twitter, and possibly other forms of social media, could be a safe space for people with the condition to share their experiences with others.
_________________________________ Pavelko, R., & Myrick, J. (2015). That’s so OCD: The effects of disease trivialization via social media on user perceptions and impression formation Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 251-258 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.061