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Misunderstanding the Harms of Online Misinformation

Ceren Budak, Brendan Nyhan, David M. Rothschild, Emily Thorson, Duncan J. Watts

Nature, June 2024

Emily Thorson

Emily Thorson

The controversy over online misinformation and social media has opened a gap between public discourse and scientific research. Public intellectuals and journalists frequently make sweeping claims about the effects of exposure to false content online that are inconsistent with much of the current empirical evidence.

Here we identify three common misperceptions: that average exposure to problematic content is high, that algorithms are largely responsible for this exposure and that social media is a primary cause of broader social problems such as polarization.

In our review of behavioural science research on online misinformation, we document a pattern of low exposure to false and inflammatory content that is concentrated among a narrow fringe with strong motivations to seek out such information. In response, we recommend holding platforms accountable for facilitating exposure to false and extreme content in the tails of the distribution, where consumption is highest and the risk of real-world harm is greatest.

We also call for increased platform transparency, including collaborations with outside researchers, to better evaluate the effects of online misinformation and the most effective responses to it. Taking these steps is especially important outside the USA and Western Europe, where research and data are scant and harms may be more severe.

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