Report Shows People Tend To Fact-Check Information More Often When Alone, Less When Seen Among A Group

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A new study by Columbia University shows people tend to question news less when they see themselves in a public group compared to how often they fact-check information while alone, a trend which may explain how fake news spreads on social media.

The researchers conducted eight experiments to evaluate how the presence of others affects the way that people evaluate information and, in particular, the extent to which people verify ambiguous claims.

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In one case, participants were given the choices of “true,” “false,” or “flag” to 36 statements described as news headlines published by a U.S. media outlet. Examples included “Scientists have officially declared the Great Barrier Reef to be dead” or “Undocumented immigrants pay $12 billion a year into Social Security.”

Half the people surveyed were shown only their username on the screen, while the rest saw their own name along with a list of more than 100 other respondents said to be currently online.

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In eight experiments, people who were suggested to be part of a larger review group flagged 35% less statements for later fact-checking – but when told to be more vigilant from the start, rates of flagging for later review were nearly doubled the average.

“Animals in the wild hide out and feel safer in herds and, similarly, we feel safer in a crowd,” said Gita Johar, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business at Columbia Business School who co-authored the study. “When applied to information consumed on social media, this same instinct results in lower fact-checking.”

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While partisan bias may affect whether or not someone believed something to be true – with Democrats agreeing with liberal candidates’ statements and Republicans in line with conservative candidates – the group dynamic was a greater factor in how likely someone was in later seeking to verify if a statement was true.