- Social media is part of everyday life for over 4.6 billion people worldwide.
- New research has shown that only 28% of people read everything in an article before they share it on social media.
- Sharing an article — even without reading it — can increase a person’s self-perception that they are knowledgeable about the topic, and this is even more true when they share the article with friends.
- This phenomenon, known as increased subjective knowledge, can alter how people act and affect the decisions they make.
Sharing is not a new concept, humans live in social groups and thrive on social interaction — this forms part of human nature.
Yet “[s]ocial media have transformed the way we understand the world around us by changing the way we access, share, understand — and misunderstand — information”, Dr. Adrian Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas, told Medical News Today.
An estimated 70% of North Americans use social media to connect with each other and share information. In the age of social media with constant access to more information from a wider range and variety of sources, why do people share, and how does it affect them?
Our relationship with social media
According to a study conducted by a customer insight group for The New York Times, sharing online helps people feel more involved in the world.
The study of 2,500 users showed that 49% of participants aimed to change the opinions of others or encourage action, with 68% aiming to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
How does people’s sharing impact what they know or what they think they know? This has been the focus of recent research by Prof. Susan M. Broniarczyk, professor of marketing, and Dr. Adrian Ward, both at McCombs School of Business, University of Texas.
“Our research shows that this new information-sharing environment may also be transforming the way we understand ourselves. When we share information on social media, we aren’t just sharing news — we are also sharing an image of who we are and what we know. Our research shows that the signals our behavior sends to others can influence the way we see ourselves; we begin to see ourselves as we believe we are seen by others.”
– Dr. Adrian Ward
The new research, which appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that simply sharing information gives people confidence, making them feel more knowledgeable about the information shared even if they have only read the headline.
The impact of sharing without reading
In a number of studies, scientists investigated the impact of “sharing without reading” and its effect on subjective knowledge, meaning what people think they know, and objective knowledge — what people actually know.
In early studies, participants listed articles they had shared on Facebook and how much of each article they had read before sharing. Only 28% of participants described reading the full article before sharing, and 25% admitted to only having read a couple of lines or none at all.
Another early study by the same researchers found that people associated social media sharing with knowledge, and felt that sharing made them look more knowledgeable.
To understand how sharing affects a person’s subjective and objective knowledge, the researchers gave a group of students the opportunity to read and share a range of news articles.
The students then had to rate their subjective knowledge of each article before completing three multiple-choice questions that assessed their objective knowledge.
Finally, the researchers asked the participants if they had read the article or not. The researchers found that sharing was linked to a higher level of subjective knowledge even if students had not read the article.
How subjective knowledge affects decision making
In a final study, 300 participants were asked to read an article about investing for beginners before being assigned to either share it on their personal Facebook profile or not.
Next, the researchers gave them a retirement planning exercise, where after receiving personal investment portfolio recommendations, they were asked to allocate $10,000 into stocks and/ or bonds.
People who shared opted for investments associated with greater risk, suggesting that sharing not only affects what people think they know but also how they may act.
Speaking to MNT, Dr. Dam Hee Kim, assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, who was not involved in the study, commented that the increased desire to take risks in the financial exercise “is concerning considering that they think they are knowledgeable after news sharing, but actually are not knowledgeable.”
“In the end, riskier investments may do more harm to the sharers,” said Dr. Kim.
Sharing with friends also showed an increase in subjective knowledge when compared to sharing with strangers, and interestingly, where participants were forced to share, there was no increase in subjective knowledge.
Mental health and sharing on social media
Social media is a powerful tool for making people feel more knowledgeable and may have benefits for people’s mental health. “[F]eeling smart can improve self-esteem,” commented Dr. Ward.
Indeed, studies have shown that news sharing can lead to social learning and political engagement encouraging people to take more active roles in their communities.
Dr. Kim agreed that sharing may be beneficial, explaining that sharers “can feel empowered as aware and involved members of a community or even opinion leaders.”
“In a way, news sharers are learning to become good active members of a community,” she noted.
However, Dr. Ward cautioned that there may also be negative consequences.
“[P]eople’s inflated sense of personal knowledge could lead to interpersonal conflict; if people on both sides of controversial issues are highly confident in their views, but lack [a] deep understanding of the issues, it may be even more difficult to find common ground,” he pointed out.
Sharing and fake news
In the community, the findings may raise concern — sharing articles that have not been read may encourage the spread of fake news and misinformation.
“Given that news sharers gain subjective — not necessarily objective — knowledge, and these people are likely to further share news, it is possible that they contribute to the spread of false or misleading information,” said Dr. Kim.
Dr. Ward echoed these thoughts, explaining:
“[I]f people do not read what they share, they may be more likely to share fake news without even realizing it […] [P]eople feel more knowledgeable about what they share, [and] sharing news on social media may cause people to become more entrenched in their views — even if these views are primarily supported by fake news or misinformation. When we feel like we already know about a topic, we are less likely to try to learn or read more about the topic — so people who share fake news may be less likely to encounter new information that challenges their existing beliefs.”
Prof. Broniarczyk agrees: “If people feel more knowledgeable on a topic, they also feel they maybe don’t need to read or learn additional information on that topic.”
Where do we go from here?
Dr. Ward outlined that the next step for this work is to understand “[b]eyond financial decisions, what other behaviors might be affected — and how?”
He went on to note that “it is important to understand how to combat the tendency to share without reading and the inflated sense of knowledge that comes along with this behavior.”
“Feeling more knowledgeable than we really are may have harmful consequences not just for people’s personal behavior, but also for the ability to communicate with others and function as a society,” Dr. Ward told us.
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