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Study: Digital literacy doesn’t stop the spread of misinformation

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Understanding why people believe and share things that are false is an important part of addressing the spread of misinformation on social media.

A new study from MIT Sloan researchers takes a look at the role of digital literacy — familiarity with basic concepts related to the internet and social media — with mixed results. Digital literacy is associated with more discerning judgement about what’s true and false, but it doesn’t seem to predict whether the person is more or less likely to share false information on social media.

Read the digital literacy paper

“These results add to the mixed pattern regarding digital literacy and misinformation on social media,” MIT Sloan professor and researchers Nathaniel Sirlin, Ziv Epstein, and Antonio Arechar write. “While digital literacy was associated with a better ability to identify true versus false information, this did not appear to translate into sharing better-quality information.” Rand is also a professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. 

In their experiment, the researchers conducted a survey of 1,341 Americans (representative of the national distribution of age, gender, ethnicity, and geographic region) who were shown true and false posts about politics and COVID-19. The subjects were also asked about political party affiliation.

Insights from the study include:

Digital literacy matters …

The researchers used two measures to determine digital literacy: familiarity with internet-related terms and attitudes toward technology, and knowledge about how social media platforms decide which stories to show them. Respondents were also tested on their knowledge about how professional news operates and their critical thinking skills, and were randomly assigned to either assess the accuracy of a set of headlines or indicate their likelihood of sharing each headline on social media.

The researchers found “robust evidence” that lack of digital literacy is associated with less ability to tell truth from falsehood, and this doesn’t vary based on a person’s stated partisanship or whether the news was about politics or COVID-19.

The research showed that digital literacy was a strong predictor of accuracy discernment, and critical thinking skills. Procedural news knowledge was a somewhat stronger predictor of being able to discern accuracy.

… but it doesn’t make people less likely to share false information

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The results were “strikingly different” regarding sharing discernment, or the tendency to share true news more than false news. Digitally literate subjects were just as likely to show a tendency to share inaccurate information. This didn’t vary based on partisanship, or if the news was about politics or COVID-19. Procedural news knowledge was the only factor that was positively associated with a higher fraction of shared content that was true. 

Researchers said this is likely due, at least in part, to people’s tendency to fail to consider accuracy when they think about what to share, researchers said. Other research has shown that an “accuracy nudge,” or reminding people to think about accuracy before they post, improves the quality of information they share online.

“If they fail to even consider whether a piece of news is accurate before deciding to share it, their higher ability to identify which news is accurate will be of little assistance,” the researchers wrote.

Key takeaways: the limits of digital literacy and importance of focusing on accuracy

The implication is that measuring digital literacy might be useful for identifying social media users who are vulnerable to believing misinformation, but not useful for identifying those who are likely to spread that information.

Other takeaways include the potential impact of shifting users’ attention to accuracy to reduce misinformation, and the suggestion that education aimed at reducing misinformation should focus more generally on procedural news knowledge.

“This emphasizes the multifaceted nature of digital literacy and the importance of future scholarship further elucidating the many dimensions of digital literacy, as well as the relationship between digital literacy, media literacy, and digital media literacy,” the researchers write.

Read next: 25 ways to fix social media

For more info Sara Brown News Writer