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Correcting political tweets containing misinformation ‘leads to more false tweets and toxicity’

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Correcting political tweets that contain false claims and misinformation only served to make the problem worse, increasing the likelihood of toxic backlash and further inaccurate tweets, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Exeter Business School and MIT Sloan created Twitter bot accounts that resembled human users to issue polite corrections to 2,000 users with a range of political affiliations who had tweeted one of 11 widely circulated false new articles.

However, the users were more likely to retweet lower-quality news and use more toxic language after being corrected, the team observed, demonstrating the complexities in combating the spread of misinformation and disinformation online.

The bot accounts, all of which had existed for at least three months and had gained 1,000 followers, replied to Twitter users sharing links to articles that had been identified as inaccurate by fact-checking organisation Snopes, including untrue claims that Ukraine had donated more money than any other nation to the Clinton Foundation and that Donald Trump had once evicted a disabled combat veteran for owning a therapy dog from one of his properties.

Study: Correcting misinformation on Twitter only makes problem worse Russell Parton University of Exeter Press Office +44 (0)7810 245309
How the corrective tweets appeared (Photo:
University of Exeter)

After identifying the false tweets, the Twitter bots replied with words to the effect of: “I’m uncertain about this article – it might not be true. I found a link on Snopes that says this headline is false” alongside a link to the correct information.

The accuracy of tweets sent by the corrected users in the following 24 hours declined by around 1 per cent and more than 7,000 retweets containing links to political content also featured an upturn in partisan sentiment and toxicity of language, the researchers observed, suggesting that a public correction is a “much more emotional, confrontational, and social interaction”.

“After a user was corrected they retweeted news that was significantly lower in quality and higher in partisan slant, and their retweets contained more toxic language,” Dr Mohsen Mosleh, lecturer in business analytics at University of Exeter Business School, said.

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“Unlike the subtle accuracy nudges, direct public corrections were found to make things worse. This shows how complicated the fight against misinformation is, and cautions against encouraging people to go around correcting each other online.”

The findings, published as part of online conference CHI ’21: Proceedings of the 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, suggest that being publicly corrected by another user shifts Twitter users’ attention away from accuracy.

Original tweets written by the author were more likely to be accurate and contain less toxic language than retweets, suggesting that users spent longer crafting their primary tweets and gave little thought to retweeting existing tweets, co-author Professor David Rand from the MIT Sloan School of Management pointed out.

“We might have expected that being corrected would shift one’s attention to accuracy. But instead, it seems that getting publicly corrected by another user shifted people’s attention away from accuracy – perhaps to other social factors such as embarrassment,” he said.

The findings appear to contradict a previous study from Dr Mosleh and his team published in March that suggested that neutral, non-confrontational reminders around the concept of accuracy can increase the quality of the news people share on social media.


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