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Scratching the surface: what your Facebook scrolling is really teaching you

Here’s something worth stashing away in the back of your mind as an Australian election campaign looms – a new study shows Facebook users do pick up political knowledge from their news feeds…but many won’t learn as much as they think they have.

The research, published last week in Research And Politics, was undertaken by Nicolas M Anspach of York College of Pennsylvania, Jay T Jennings of the University of Texas at Austin and Kevin Arceneaux of Temple University.

The results – and the methodology – are fascinating. Wanting to test to what extent people could glean knowledge from a Facebook feed and, more importantly, to what extent they THOUGHT they could, the researchers divided 990 US adults into three groups.

One group read an entire Washington Post article based on a survey about the safety of genetically-modified food, one saw a mocked-up Facebook news feed containing an article preview for the survey results (in among three other unrelated article previews) and a third control group got nothing at all. All three groups were then asked factual questions about genetically modified food.

Not surprisingly the group reading the entire story were the most knowledgeable on the subject. And, as you might expect, those seeing the article preview had been able to pick up a “modest” amount of learning.

But it was the impact on one subset of the “article preview group” that was most intriguing and concerning: those identified as also having a high need for affect (in other words, thriving on emotion) were found to be more certain that they had learned “a lot.”

Asked about a topic on which they’d only been presented with a snippet of information, overconfidence led them to believe that they were something close to the full bottle. The researchers noted that such a symptom wasn’t present in either of the other two groups that were polled.

In a world where fake news is a constant worry, it’s not hard to see why this might be troubling.

It’s estimated 126 million Americans were exposed to Russian-backed material on Facebook during the election campaign that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President. The emotionally-charged Brexit referendum is also believed to have been swayed by Facebook posts.

In recent weeks, amid political chaos in the UK, both pro and anti-Brexit campaigners have been accused of sending paid-for fake news into people’s feeds. In one of the more bizarre developments, a bunch of ultra-granular Brexit-advocating Facebook pages have surfaced with titles such as “Kiwis for Britain”, “Vapers for Britain” and “Economists for Britain.”

At a more personal level, the research takes on relevance if you think of those Facebook friends or acquaintances who you’ve seen share content that is either hopelessly wrong or totally and unfairly skewed towards a particular political point-of-view.

At best it might have been incorrect but largely harmless (the recurring celebrity death hoaxes), at worst it might have been playing into emotional fears about certain groups in society. You or I might be able to just shake our heads and dismiss the material as rubbish but what if someone else with a high need for affect takes it as gospel and then re-shares it?

Given the over-confidence suggested by the research, would you be convinced they might seek out more details that would help them make a truly-informed decision about the subject?

While Facebook has vowed to work with Australian authorities to ensure our election avoids the pitfalls of the 2016 US campaign, it’s already clear – from evidence locally and abroad – that social media will have a bigger role to play than ever as we head towards the polls.

In the US, UK, Brazil and India, Facebook’s Ad Library Report lets people look at exactly how much entities are pumping into sponsored posts. In the week from February 3-9, President Trump – and accounts linked to him – spent more than $500,000 on Facebook ads.

Both the Liberal Party of Australia and Australian Labor Party had multiple Facebook ads running last week and it’s not just the traditional parties getting in on the action either. Witness Clive Palmer’s recent social spree and, at the other end of the spectrum, the potential influence of the Get Up movement (more FB followers than Liberal or Labor).

As the election draws closer, we’ll see more and more of this content appearing in our feeds. Be mindful of how your “friends” react to it.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer, a futurist and a leading media strategist with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications and journalism. Contact Ruth

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