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Why Some Tweets Are More Believable Than Others

Korean researchers report a high number of retweets makes a message seem more trustworthy.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Oliver Tacke/Flickr)

As we’re all painfully aware, Twitter is a great platform for sharing information — and misinformation. Tweets are not edited or fact-checked, meaning users of the social network have to decide their accuracy for themselves.

How do they make that all-important evaluation? A new study from South Korea provides a disturbing answer.

It reports the number of retweets can serve as a “normative cue,” leading users to assume that the information in a tweet is true. This belief, in turn, increases the likelihood they will share the message with others.

“People tend to believe what numerous others believe, particularly when there is no information otherwise,” write Korean researchers Hyegyu Lee and Hyun Jung Oh. Their study is published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

The study featured 639 Twitter users who took part in a Korean research company’s survey panel. All read and responded to two Korean-language tweets, each of which focused on one of two topics: contaminated mineral water or “a robber disguised as a police officer.”

Half of the tweets were labeled “news,” and the other half “rumors.” In addition, half indicated they had been retweeted 297 times, while the other half noted they had only gotten seven retweets.

Participants judged each tweet for accuracy and believability. They also noted whether they would likely share the tweet, and whether “most Twitter users” would do so.

The key result: “Message believability and intention to share were stronger for a tweet with a high number of retweets.” Disturbingly, this proved true whether the tweet in question was labeled rumor or news.

In other words, when people saw that a message had been widely retweeted, they assumed that meant many people believe it is accurate. This presumption positively “influenced one’s belief in the tweet, and intention to share the tweet,” the researchers write.

The researchers concede that their experiment did not precisely mimic the experience Twitter users have online, when they typically scroll through many tweets quickly rather than pausing to consider one or two in isolation. They add that which rumors one retweets is presumably influenced by the type of information that “is likely to be accepted by one’s social group.”

And, of course, this study will have to be replicated in the United States to see if this dynamic also applies to Americans (though there’s no obvious reason to think it wouldn’t).

These caveats aside, this research strongly suggests the assumption “if a lot of people believe it, it’s probably true” influences how we react to social-network postings, and how we decide whether to share such messages. And that’s one insidious way disinformation spreads.

As Brenda Wiederhold, editor in chief of the journal, puts it: “We must remain adamant in our use of critical-thinking skills to evaluate information, and avoid equating popularity with plausibility.”