Disinformation on Facebook: contrasting false theories does not benefit to science

Attempts to systematically contrast pseudo-scientific theories or false new that are published on Facebook would be useless or even counter-productive. A research on debunking carried out by an international team lead by Italian researchers published today by the journal PLOS ONE examines the effectiveness of debunking through an analysis of 54 million social network users’ profiles over five years.

“Debunking posts stimulate negative comments and do not reach “conspiracists” causing the opposite reaction to what was intended” explains Fabiana Zollo, author of the paper and research fellow at the Department of Evnironmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

Researchers have analyzed posts, likes and comments on 83 Facebook scientific pages, 330 conspiracy pages and 66 Facebook pages aiming at debunking conspiracy theses - which represented more than 50,000 posts.

The study confirms that two distinct communities coexist on social media and do not interact with each other. Users interact primarily within echo chambers reinforcing their initial theses.

The paper that was just published is part of a broader research on disinformation based on social network users’ behavior. This research has a tangible impact on the strategies of the media: following the first ‘hints’ of counterproductive effects of dissing false information, the journalist Caitlin Dewey decided to suspend her weekly intersect on debunking in the Washington Post.

Misinformation spreading is linked to the growing distrust in institutions as well as the inadequate understanding of information - adds Fabiana Zollo. These aspects together with the mechanisms of the eco chambers and the confirmation bias undermine the effectiveness of debunking. Using a more open and flexible approach promoting humility to tear down the walls between the network tribes would be a first step against the diffusion of misinformation and its persistence online”.

This research is a key step towards the creation of a centre dedicated to the effect of social networks on our society. Researchers aim to monitor the information sphere with specifically design indicators to evaluate the impact of newspapers and the information needs of the users.

“We are currently studying techniques to identify ‘early warning’ indicating the misinformation spreading and we have very promising results”, concludes Fabiana Zollo.