Preaching to the Choir: Social media sharing in “echo chambers” reinforces belief

Doubtful News would be useless if people weren’t interested in finding out what might or might not be true and correct. This site appeals to people who are willing to listen to a narrative framed in that way. But, SURPRISE (not), most people consult the internet guided by beliefs they hold dear – whether those tend towards assuming scientific consensus will give us the best answers or that the government is covering up the truth.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Del Vicario, et al. confirmed what we already suspected – people exist in online “echo chambers” where they share information that supports their existing biases. The researchers looked at 67 public Facebook pages that focused on science news, conspiracy theories and “troll” sites (those that are deliberately sarcastic and mocking) to see the patterns of how content diffused from the initial online posting and how this related to the common community who shared similar ideas. This is called “cascade dynamics” in the paper and cascade lifetime is measure in hours.

From the significance statement:

The wide availability of user-provided content in online social media facilitates the aggregation of people around common interests, worldviews, and narratives. However, the World Wide Web is a fruitful environment for the massive diffusion of unverified rumors. In this work, using a massive quantitative analysis of Facebook, we show that information related to distinct narratives – conspiracy theories and scientific news – generates homogeneous and polarized communities (i.e., echo chambers) having similar information consumption patterns. Then, we derive a data-driven percolation model of rumor spreading that demonstrates that homogeneity and polarization are the main determinants for predicting cascades size.

The data shows a peak sharing appears at 1-2 hours after the first post and then a second peak at ~20 hours. This appears in both categories so may be information we can generalize. For my uses, I see that getting information out related to the story is critical in the first hour after it reaches social media (a near impossible task except for a dedicated news outlet). Science news was found to spread more quickly but then dropped off and stabilized. Whereas the conspiracy cascade continued on a more gradual curve upwards and became more popular through time. What this tells me is that science news is consumed faster (and digested and used) but conspiracy ideas grow and get passed along slowly and steadily. The graph ends at 400 hours (about 16 days) so we don’t know if these shared posts continued to propagate. And, we don’t know from this study if they gave birth to new posts.

We may eschew sensationalism and ads but are not above emotional tugs and trendy memes. :-)

We may eschew sensationalism and ads but are not above emotional tugs and trendy memes. 🙂

An article on the study by the Washington Post contained some additional quotes from experts that triggered thoughts from me about promoting corrections — including the quote, “Continued preaching to the choir is not going to work.” That is, a Facebook page with a science focus does not extend its reach past that “choir”. The same almost certainly occurs with pages that promote critical thinking and debunking of false claims.

Damn, it’s not going to be easy. Human nature is against it. As Robert Brulle of Drexel University was quoted:

Individuals want to maintain their self-identity and self-image. They’re not going to read something that challenges their values, their self-worth, their identity, their belief system.

Those of us who try to reach people with strong beliefs in conspiracies, the paranormal, or alternative treatments know exactly how this goes. Changing minds is near impossible. Therefore, this study didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know – confirmation bias rules.

How to reach the largest audience, outside of the “choir”, has always been a priority of DN but we acknowledge we are hamstrung by our decision to reject sensationalizing and prioritizing clicks over content. We don’t play games with the reader, so we are necessarily less entertaining to the average site viewer than those sites that provide content based on apocalyptic destruction, social or political outrage, or mystery mongering. As we’ve noted before, people tend to share the stories that are gruesome, shocking, and ridiculous even though, if asked, they may GUESS that they are lies. They will also share those stories that fit in with their preferred worldview, not ones that poke holes in topics they are invested in. In fact, try that in the echo chamber and you will get booted out right quick.

Additional research cited in the Del Vicario, et al. study tells us that even exposure to unsubstantiated rumors increases the likelihood that you will give them credence. Facebook has cornered the market on that process. False beliefs, once you have them in your head, even if you don’t recall where they came from, are extremely difficult to discard. The best we can do is try to gradually change thinking and eventually replace the misinformation with better stuff. We may be able to do that by considering the framing of the story to appeal to people to change THEIR OWN minds.

We will always have fringe beliefs. Counteracting misinformation spread and false beliefs will require a shift in presenting these ideas, not just a tweak to what exists. It also will likely require a shift in online behavior. How do you slow down sharing, increase critical thinking, and avoid the backfire effect?

How to catalyze the needed shift is a conundrum. Ideas welcomed.

  5 comments for “Preaching to the Choir: Social media sharing in “echo chambers” reinforces belief

  1. January 8, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    One of the conclusions I came to at the end of my recent NYC Skeptics Skepticamp talk was, sadly, the real outreach may not come from us. Like you say, everyone has their own echo chamber and biases, and we’re not the only ones who have figured that out. People see information coming from us, think they automatically know what it’s going to say, and tune it out or don’t pay attention at all.

    The trick is to sneak past those defenses. People without the “skeptic stink” have to come out and bring attention to these things. Celebrity culture is awful, but if people are going to believe movie stars when they say to not vaccinate, we need to fight fire with fire and not deny human nature in defense of ideals, while not actually accomplishing anything. Sara Michelle Gellar and Salma Hayek get the foot in the door, and THEN they can say, “But don’t listen to me OR Jenny! There’s science out there, guys!” I call that “using the system against itself.”

    I share your disdain for sensationalism, and yeah, it would be great if people didn’t fall for it, but it works. In that sense it kind of falls into the same category of “tricks” as storytelling, which I know you’re okay with. “Number 8 will make your cry” type lists may be a bridge too far, I agree, but just plain presentation doesn’t grab in the information age. We did a lecture with Ann Reynolds of ABC, and she said that decades ago, watching the news was just something you HAD to do. You sat down and ate your broccoli, whether you liked it or not. People don’t feel that obligation anymore, and there are SO many things vying for our attention that if you don’t make information shiny somehow, no one but the people directly seeking it (i.e. echo chamber residents) will notice it’s even there.

  2. Lagaya1
    January 8, 2016 at 1:37 PM

    Oftentimes people choose a side in a controversy because they think that’s the side that the “good people” are on. This past year the debate near where I live has been about GMO crops. People think that one side is good the other is evil. It’s important to point out that there is good on both sides. I like to ask them how we will feed starving people without GMO. Just because my plate is full, doesn’t mean that we can just ignore a hungry world. That argument shows that maybe the “evil” side is really the good, and the “antis” are the more selfish of the two. If it doesn’t change anyone’s mind, at least it gives a little food for thought (pardon the pun).

  3. Hans Moleman
    January 8, 2016 at 3:20 PM

    The socratic method can be a powerful tool to trigger critical thinking. It’s often more effective than just trying to outright win an argument.

  4. Cathy
    January 10, 2016 at 9:42 PM

    I have to admit to going for sharing the more exciting unlikely story with friends but also knowing it was true. Nothing like having truly amazing things happen on a sporting field to wow over.

  5. rhapakatui
    January 11, 2016 at 1:17 AM

    I’m notoriously argumentative. My friends and family have come to expect me to try and change their minds about almost every subject.

    As such, I get tuned out often.

    Lately, I’ve been trying to fight this urge. It can be difficult when someone starts warning about the dangers of eating GMOs or singing the praises of Donald Trump.

    This site has lately given me a new method of dealing with these issues. I’ve just made a habit of asking for sources. If I give my opinion, I only state that it is my opinion and make little or no argument.

    I theorize that this makes people look up evidence for their claims. I can’t persuade someone that they’re wrong, but maybe trying to bring me to their side will force them evaluate their claims.

    It has worked on me.

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