NEW YORK – The evolving science and changing guidelines behind COVID-19 have made the pandemic a regular target for misinformation, and these falsehoods can become hard to detect when people indiscriminately share unverified COVID-19 news on social media. In a new study of this behavior, Columbia Business School’s Gita V. Johar, Vice Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business and Chazen Senior Scholar, finds that those experiencing social marginalization are more likely to spread the news they encounter on social media, independent of its veracity or shock factor. Professor Johar finds that a desire to seek meaning and make sense of the world could be motivating individuals to share more often.
The new study, co-written with Marketing PhD candidate Youjung Jun, builds on earlier research that shows that those who feel a sense of exclusion and uncertainty are more likely to search for meaning in their world. Across four studies, the researchers asked nearly 900 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to rate their likelihood of sharing a set of news headlines on social media that varied in both veracity (true and untrue) and the surprise factor (surprising and unsurprising). They demonstrate that experiencing social marginalization, whether by feeling discriminated against in one’s day-to-day life or by feeling marginalized at the moment, causes social media users to share COVID-19 news indiscriminately (regardless of its veracity and surprise element) at higher rates. They also find an intervention that caused participants to feel powerful reduces indiscriminate news-sharing, presumably because of a temporary feeling of greater meaningfulness.
This research into people’s intention to share any news, and not just false news, clarifies previous research that has found a relationship between sociodemographic conditions of marginalization (including income) and the sharing of misinformation. The researchers suggest that this prior result may be a by-product of the news the individuals are exposed to, highlighting the importance of creating a truthful and safe media ecosystem so that sharing information in the quest to find meaning is no longer an activity that is fraught with potential error and deadly consequences.
The study, Social Marginalization Motivates Indiscriminate Sharing of COVID-19 News on Social Media, is available online here.
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About the researchers
Gita V. Johar (PhD NYU 1993; MBA Indian Institute of Management Calcutta 1985) has been on the faculty of Columbia Business School since 1992 and is currently...Read more.