Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Facebook as a conduit for misinformation and racism: The role of shallow information processing
In a previous post, I discussed how there seems to be a trend today to regard having a Facebook account as a sort of quick and dirty indicator of normal social adjustment, and that some employers – very unfairly – regard people who choose not to use the site as somehow “suspicious.” I noted that such a view is unfounded and also pointed out that Facebook usage can be problematic for some people under some circumstances. In fact, some research suggests that Facebook is associated with a culture of shallow information processing that might facilitate uncritical acceptance of problematic social attitudes, such as racism. One study in particular found that people who spend a great deal of time on Facebook are more likely to agree with racist messages posted by another user compared to people who spend less time on the site. This raises the possibility that Facebook might be a particularly apt medium for spreading poor quality information generally. Whether this is because Facebook usage actually degrades the quality of a person’s information processing capacities or because individuals who are prone to shallow information processing have a high preference for using this medium remains unclear.

With the growth in popularity of Facebook, a great deal of research has examined the motives and characteristics of users. People mainly use Facebook to connect with others, although many people also use it secondarily to share news and information. One study found that people who preferred using Facebook, compared to those who preferred using Twitter, were more sociable and more neurotic, but had a lower need for cognition (Hughes, Rowe, Batey, & Lee, 2012). Need for cognition refers to a person’s desire for intellectual stimulation and enjoyment of effortful thinking. A lower need for cognition would suggest that people with a stronger preference Facebook do not generally desire to think too deeply about the information they encounter online, whereas Twitter users may be more critical thinkers. In addition to lack of critical thinking, the need to feel a sense of belonging, a common motive for Facebook usage, may mean that frequent Facebook users may agree more or less indiscriminately with messages they encounter online compared to less frequent users (Rauch & Schanz, 2013).

Social media allows people to opine about any subject they like, including topics that are generally regarded as being of low social acceptability. As a result, people with racist views take the opportunity to express negative opinions about different ethnic groups, and racist memes and rants on Facebook are not uncommon. Some racist messages argue for the superiority of, say, white people over other races. However, a more subtle for of racism argues that whites are victims of discrimination by minority groups. Victim based racist arguments seem to have wider appeal than ones based on blatant superiority and are less likely to be immediately rejected. As a result, extremist groups frequently portray themselves as victims of oppression in order to elicit fear and anger at the supposed injustices inflicted upon them by an unfair society. A recent study therefore looked at whether a person’s frequency of Facebook usage and their motivation to seek information was associated with more agreement with racist messages read online (Rauch & Schanz, 2013). This was tested in an experiment in which participants read one of three messages: an egalitarian, anti-racist message; a message of white superiority over blacks; or a message portraying whites as victims. Participants were asked how much they agreed with each message, and how they might respond to it, e.g. whether they would share it with others, or if they would either friend or unfriend the author of the message.

Racist poster displayed on the Facebook page of the Republican National Committee for nearly a week

On the whole, people were more likely to agree with the egalitarian message than either of the racist ones, although people tended to be somewhat more sympathetic to the victim message than the superiority one. People’s behavioural intentions to the egalitarian and victim messages did not differ, although they generally had a more negative response to the superiority message. However, there were noticeable differences between high and low frequency users. The more frequently a person used Facebook, the more likely they were to agree with each of the racist messages, particularly the superiority one. High frequency users were also more likely to act on either of the racist messages compared to less frequent users. There were also differences between those who were strongly motivated to seek information compared to those with less of this motivation. High information seekers had a more positive attitude to the egalitarian message and more negative attitudes to the racist messages than low information seekers. High information seekers were also more likely to act on the egalitarian message than the low information seekers. This seems to suggest that Facebook users with higher information seeking motives may process information more critically than those with lower information seeking motives.

The results of this study suggest that high frequency Facebook users and those with low information seeking motives appear to be rather undiscriminating in how they respond to online communications, as they had reasonably similar responses to both racist and anti-racist messages, almost as if they were agreeing blindly. On the other hand, less frequent users and those with high information seeking motives showed more clearly differentiated responses to each message, suggesting they gave more thought to their responses. A striking feature of these results is that the messages that participants read originated from a stranger, yet certain users readily agreed with their views. It seems likely that messages from friends would be even more persuasive, considering that most Facebook users seem to be motivated by a need to belong.

The reasons these results occurred are not completely clear. One possibility is that people who choose to spend a lot of time on Facebook and/or who are not motivated by information seeking have personal characteristics, such as low need for cognition, that predispose them to agree uncritically with messages they read online. On the other hand, it is also possible that engaging in high levels of Facebook usage could degrade a person’s capacity to think critically, perhaps due to something about the nature of the activity itself. Further research could help make the causes of this effect clearer. For example, experiments could be conducted where people are asked to use Facebook for long periods of time and then tested to see if this has any effect on their ability to think critically compared to alternative activities, such as using other websites.

The study also raises an issue about whether Facebook is a particularly apt medium for transmitting misinformation in general. Misinformation is very common on the internet and many hoaxes have been widely believed and circulated via the web. Future studies could compare whether Facebook users are more susceptible to misinformation than users of other media. For example, an experiment could be done in which people are exposed to misinformation on either Facebook or Twitter and then see how users of each site respond, perhaps after a substantial delay when they have had enough time to process the information. For example, participants might be retested after a few days to determine if they still believe the information and if they have made any attempt to check it with independent sources. If it is true that users of Twitter for example are more critical thinkers than Facebook users, then they might be expected to be more sceptical about what they believe. This would help determine if frequent Facebook users actually are less discriminating in what they accept compared to other people, or if they are not much different from internet users generally.

The study by Rauch and Schanz is one of several indicating that in some people at least Facebook usage can be problematic, much like other activities that people might engage in to excess. I think this shows that using something as simple as whether or not someone has a Facebook account is a sign of how “normal” they are is both foolish and very unfair. Treating Facebook usage as a shorthand indicator of “normality” is little more than a lazy way of sorting people into categories with as little effort as possible, and is itself a sign of uncritical thinking. In the spirit of fairness, I want to also point out that the results of studies such as the ones I have cited indicate general trends only and do not necessarily imply that all people who spend a lot of time on Facebook have problems, only some of them.  

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about Social Media
Twitter and Mortality: To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Extroverts but not introverts use Twitter to ward off existential anxiety

The Misunderstood Personality Profile of Wikipedia Members Contrary to a widely reported study, Wikipedians are not close-minded at all. 

Image Credits

Hughes, D. J., Rowe, M., Batey, M., & Lee, A. (2012). A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 561-569. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.11.001
Rauch, S. M., & Schanz, K. (2013). Advancing racism with Facebook: Frequency and purpose of Facebook use and the acceptance of prejudiced and egalitarian messages Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (3), 610-615

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