How social media amplifies misinformation more than information

It is well known that social media amplifies misinformation and other harmful content. The Integrity Institute, an advocacy group, is now trying to measure exactly how much — and on Thursday began publishing results that it plans to update every week leading up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

The institute’s first online report found that a “well-crafted lie” gets more engagement than typical, truthful content, and that some social media site features and their algorithms contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Twitter, the analysis showed, has what the institute called the big factor in amplifying misinformation, in large part due to its feature of allowing people to easily share or “retweet” posts. It was followed by TikTok, the Chinese video site that uses machine learning models to predict engagement and make recommendations to users.

“We see a difference for each platform because each platform has different mechanisms for virality,” said Jeff Allen, a former integrity officer at Facebook and founder and chief research officer of the Integrity Institute. “The more mechanisms there are for virality on the platform, the more we see misinformation becoming more prevalent.”

The institute calculated its results by comparing posts that members of the International Fact-Checking Network have identified as false versus confronting previous posts not flagged by the same accounts. It analyzed nearly 600 fact-checked posts in September on a variety of topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the upcoming elections.

Facebook had the most instances of misinformation, according to the sample studied by the institute, but reinforced such claims to a lesser extent, partly because sharing posts requires more steps. However, some of the newer features are more prone to amplifying misinformation, the institute noted.

The institute found that the amplification factor of video content alone through Facebook is closer to that of TikTok. That’s because the platform’s Reels and Facebook Watch, which are video features, “both rely heavily on algorithmic content recommendations” based on engagements, according to the institute’s calculations.

Instagram, which belongs to Meta like Facebook, had the lowest amplification rate. According to the institute, there was not enough data to make a statistically significant estimate for YouTube.

The institute plans to update its findings to track how gains fluctuate, particularly as the midterm elections approach. Misinformation, according to the institute’s report, is much more likely to be shared than mere factual content.

“The amplification of misinformation can increase around critical events as misinformation takes hold,” the report said. “It can also fall as platforms make design changes around the event that reduce the spread of misinformation.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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