Impact of Social Reference Cues on Misinformation Sharing on Social Media: Series of Experimental Studies
Journal of Medical Internet Research
Background: Health-related misinformation on social media is a key challenge to effective and timely public health responses. Existing mitigation measures include flagging misinformation or providing links to correct information, but they have not yet targeted social processes. Current approaches focus on increasing scrutiny, providing corrections to misinformation (debunking), or alerting users prospectively about future misinformation (prebunking and inoculation). Here, we provide a test of a complementary strategy that focuses on the social processes inherent in social media use, in particular, social reinforcement, social identity, and injunctive norms. Objective: This study aimed to examine whether providing balanced social reference cues (ie, cues that provide information on users sharing and, more importantly, not sharing specific content) in addition to flagging COVID-19-related misinformation leads to reductions in sharing behavior and improvement in overall sharing quality. Methods: A total of 3 field experiments were conducted on Twitter's native social media feed (via a newly developed browser extension). Participants' feed was augmented to include misleading and control information, resulting in 4 groups: no-information control, Twitter's own misinformation warning (misinformation flag), social cue only, and combined misinformation flag and social cue. We tracked the content shared or liked by participants. Participants were provided with social information by referencing either their personal network on Twitter or all Twitter users. Results: A total of 1424 Twitter users participated in 3 studies (n=824, n=322, and n=278). Across all 3 studies, we found that social cues that reference users' personal network combined with a misinformation flag reduced the sharing of misleading but not control information and improved overall sharing quality. We show that this improvement could be driven by a change in injunctive social norms (study 2) but not social identity (study 3). Conclusions: Social reference cues combined with misinformation flags can significantly and meaningfully reduce the amount of COVID-19-related misinformation shared and improve overall sharing quality. They are a feasible and scalable way to effectively curb the sharing of COVID-19-related misinformation on social media.