How many others have shared this? Experimentally investigating the effects of social cues on engagement, misinformation, and unpredictability on social media

by   Ziv Epstein, et al.

Unlike traditional media, social media typically provides quantified metrics of how many users have engaged with each piece of content. Some have argued that the presence of these cues promotes the spread of misinformation. Here we investigate the causal effect of social cues on users' engagement with social media posts. We conducted an experiment with N=628 Americans on a custom-built newsfeed interface where we systematically varied the presence and strength of social cues. We find that when cues are shown, indicating that a larger number of others have engaged with a post, users were more likely to share and like that post. Furthermore, relative to a control without social cues, the presence of social cues increased the sharing of true relative to false news. The presence of social cues also makes it more difficult to precisely predict how popular any given post would be. Together, our results suggest that – instead of distracting users or causing them to share low-quality news – social cues may, in certain circumstances, actually boost truth discernment and reduce the sharing of misinformation. Our work suggests that social cues play important roles in shaping users' attention and engagement on social media, and platforms should understand the effects of different cues before making changes to what cues are displayed and how.


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