In April, we announced the inaugural recipients of the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants. These teams of academics from universities across the globe have been given the opportunity to have unprecedented access to privacy-protected Facebook data for the purpose of understanding the role of social media in international political systems.
Today, we begin our Six Questions series to spotlight the teams, methods, and goals of funded research projects of the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program.
Here, we bring you an interview with the principal investigator of the Ohio State University research team, Dr. R. Kelly Garrett. This multinational and multi-institutional group of scholars will delve deeper into the mechanics and motivations for sharing fake news on social media.
Six Questions: Understanding Problematic Sharing Behavior on Facebook
R. Kelly Garrett, Associate Professor, School of Communication at the Ohio State University
Which trends have you seen related to social media and democracy?
The public is increasingly anxious about efforts to use social media to advance political agendas. Candidates and issue advocates of all kinds—well-intentioned and otherwise—are flocking to social media because they understand its reach. The public understands this too.
What motivated you to pursue this research?
People tend to seek out others who agree with them, but the notion of a complete echo chamber is almost impossible to find in the wild. Nearly everyone is regularly exposed to some opposing viewpoints. This led me to wonder how people can disagree with empirical facts if they aren’t living in echo chambers. If everyone is certainly exposed to claims on both sides, I’m interested in knowing how they arrive at different decisions—especially as nearly everyone is still hearing both sides.
What are the core questions your research hopes to address?
We want to understand whether platform technology and the evolving norms of online communication thereupon is contributing to an uptick in false belief. Are some people more prone to being misled online than others? Why? Are there particular states of mind or conditions that make some social media users more vulnerable to manipulation through disinformation than others? The answers to these questions will have huge implications for democracies worldwide.
Which outside research does your work build on?
This project will draw on research from a variety of sources, but especially from the fields of communications and psychology. There is a long history of research on how people make sense of complex information environments. During World War II, communications scholars conducted a great deal of rumoring and propaganda research. That research sought to determine the ways in which political opponents might have tried to manipulate Americans to their advantage. We’re also building on recent work by psychologists on the Continued Influence Effect and Motivated Reasoning.
How do you hope your findings might affect society at large?
We hope that by better understanding what makes social media users believe and share false information, we can help to better protect our society from bad actors looking to use social media to manipulate our democratic institutions. Equipped with this information, social media companies themselves could be on the forefront of these efforts, working to implement changes to prevent these falsehoods from spreading.
This project only scratches the surface of the relationship between the psychology of belief, platform technology, and democracy. As we learn more about the factors that impact online belief, more questions will arise about their specific psychological mechanisms. I’d especially like to delve deeper into how an individual’s emotional state impacts which falsehoods they may be willing to endorse. Social media scholarship of the kind enabled by the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants program gives us a new toolkit; a new set of ways to potentially make sense of it all. We are truly in for a future of rich and interesting research.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
For more information on Social Media and Democracy Research Grants, please visit the program page.