"AMA" - Why do people believe online posts at first glance? - The Four Questions

When I presented an "Ask Me Anything" (about media literacy) on my Facebook page, I got a question opening a discussion about why people might accept online information they see at first glance. This is a HUGE question. To barely begin to scratch the surface, I'm going to delve into the root of the matter - why people believe any information to begin with.

My friend's question will cover a few posts. In this post, I'm going to address how we usually decide if we're going to believe something or not and how that transfers when it comes to information online.

The Four Questions

When it comes to how we think about new information, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and his team wrote an article discussing a typical process someone will use when coming across a piece of new information:

"When people do thoughtfully evaluate the truth value of information, they are likely to attend to a limited set of features. First, is this information compatible with other things I believe to be truth? Second, is this information internally coherent? - do the pieces form a plausible story? Third, does it come from a credible source? Fourth, do other people believe it?" (Lewandowsky, et. al. 2012. p. 112).

These four questions get us really far in our real life interactions. Think of the last time someone told you something (that you weren't there to witness personally) and then line up how you applied those four questions to decide if it was true or not. Did the story completely come out of nowhere or does it logically follow something else that happened? Did it make sense, at least at first hearing? Do you believe the person telling you the story? If you told the story to other people, did they believe it, too?

Just for fun, you can flip this exercise around. Last time someone told you a story you did not believe, why didn't you buy in? Was it because you asked one of the four questions and rather than a satisfactory answer, you got a red flag instead?

Those four questions help us cover a lot of ground as we go about our day "IRL" (in real life, for those who insist on typing out whole words). Of course, sometimes we make the wrong call and end up misled but this gives us a solid start. So when we go on the internet, it's natural that we start with these four questions when we see a social media post or read an article. However, the problem is that the internet gives us a very limited set of information to answer the four questions and the system can break down a lot easier.

When we see that social media posts pop up, of course, the first thing we ask is "Does this line up with what I already know about this issue?" If the answer is yes, then we're more likely to jump to the next question: "Does it make sense?" If that answer is yes, then we look at the source. If a friend or a source we trust shared the post, then we are more likely to assume it's true. This guides us neatly into the final question - if the post has lots of likes, comment, and shares, it sure looks like other people believe it, especially if those comments and shares are from our own community and like-minded people.

However, viral media has lots of opportunities to derail us on our four questions. To show this process, I'm going to work backwards. First, we see a very popular post online. Clearly lots of people liked and shared it, showing they agree with the information. We saw it because someone we consider reliable enough to be a "friend" online shared it. That checks off two of the four questions. This is the first opportunity for the system to break down. On the internet, it's really easy to obscure the real source of information. So even if the most trustworthy person I know shared the information, it could have been originally created by someone who was approaching the issues with sketchy intentions. Sometimes, even public figures or credible publications slide into sharing a misleading post, accidentally lending it more believability. If the posts went viral because lots of people agreed with it, that's really not a sign that the post is credible or right; it's a sign that it was a successful example of Symbolic Convergence Theory at work. ("Whaaaaaaat Rachel?" you ask. That is a teaser for the next post on this topic - how symbols drive what we share online.)

The next two questions are more personal. If it's a story that makes sense and it fits with what we already know about the issue, then we're more likely to believe it. However, we need to remember that just because our gut reaction is "Sure, I can buy that," it's still really easy to twist information on the internet and it's probably worth digging into the origins story a little more before we like, share, and add to the appearance of credibility for the information that may or may not be deserved.

One final thought on this topic. Our knowledge on a subject is like a house and we lay down a brick every time we learn something new.* If we get duped by a social media post and believe something that isn't true, we still put down a brick on our knowledge house. That means that the next time we see a post and ask our question "does this line up with what I already believe?" and there are bricks of false information already in our house, then we'll be more likely to add more untrue bricks because it all fits together with what we think we know. If we're not careful, we can let too many sketchy bricks build our knowledge of a subject until we loose track of what's really true about that issue. When it comes to research we do online, it's so, so, important to constantly look at the bricks at the foundation of what we know to make sure we don't let ourselves get mislead by sources that don't have our best interest in mind.

Do you have questions about getting around media? Hop over to my Facebook page or comment on this post!


*I can't remember if this is a Rachel Original or if I read it somewhere else. If I find the attribution, I will update this post ASAP. If you've seen that idea somewhere else, please let me know!


Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U.K.H., Seifert, C.M., Schwarz, N., Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131. https://doi-org.proxybl.lib.montana.edu/10.1177/1529100612451018

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