People's social media posts about COVID-19 are heavy on misinformation, and now a close look at what people tend to repost reveals why this happens. Unfortunately, it boils down to people simply not caring whether the information they post is accurate. The good news is research shows there are simple ways to help counteract this.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same. News has always spread quickly in small towns, but it wasn't always accurate news. After all, rumor and innuendo can be so much more interesting than facts. This is still true in today's digital age, as evidenced by all the uproar over fake news. Gossip and unsubstantiated claims are just another irritating facet of human behavior. When the misinformation is about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, lives may be at stake.

Truthfulness did not affect the desire to consider sharing a headline online. Rumor and innuendo can be so much more interesting than facts.

In two separate experiments with over 1,700 participants in total, researchers found that people's judgment about whether a headline about COVID-19 was factually correct did not affect their desire to spread it by posting it online.

Fifteen true and 15 false headlines about COVID-19 were presented to the people in the study. These were given in the form of Facebook posts: a picture accompanied by a headline and a summary sentence. Among the headlines included were:

  • Vitamin C protects against Coronavirus
  • Coronavirus: North Korea's first confirmed patient shot dead
  • Trump spent the past two years slashing the government agencies responsible for handling the Coronavirus outbreak
  • Europe's Coronavirus outbreak worsens, with Italy at the forefront
  • CDC: Coronavirus impact may last into 2021, but impact can be blunted

  • In the first experiment, people were divided into two groups. Half were asked whether the headlines were accurate. The other half was asked whether they would consider sharing the story online.

    When the misinformation is about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, lives may be at stake.

    The first group showed some understanding of how accurate the headlines were. The true ones were roughly twice as likely to be judged as truthful as the false headlines. But truthfulness did not affect the second group's desire to consider sharing a headline online — this desire was nearly equal for true and false headlines.

    For readers who are wondering, the first two headlines are false, the last three are true.

    The second experiment tested one possible solution. Once again, the groups were split in half and shown the same headlines. The first group was asked how likely they would be to share a headline online. The second group was also asked this, but they were first primed to rate the accuracy of a non-COVID-related headline before seeing any of the COVID headlines. The hope was that this would get them thinking about a headline's accuracy before they posted one. And it worked, to a degree. The second group was considerably more likely to share true headlines than the first group.

    The moral of the story: think before you post.

    “We need to change the way that we interact with social media,” said Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina in Canada and the study's lead author. “Individuals need to remember to stop and think about whether something is true before they share it with others, and social media companies should investigate potential ways to help facilitate this, possibly by providing subtle accuracy nudges on their platform.”

    For more details, see the article in Psychological Science.