Dear Social Media Users – Read The Article

I’ve gone on before about how often people are willing to share or like something on social media without even reading it, just based on the headline. I’ve argued that it can make you look very bad when the article is not what you thought it was,

Now we have a study that shows that reading just the Facebook preview, leaves you only slightly more informed than not reading anything, but much less than actually reading the whole article.

Worse, you think you know everything you need to know.

In the study, a group of 320 participants read an article from The Washington Post about the safety of genetically modified foods. Another group of 319 participants read a mock Facebook News Feed containing four article previews, where one preview was about genetically modified foods. A third group of 351 participants, which was used as a control, did not read anything.

To test their knowledge of the subject, the participants were then asked six factual questions about genetically modified foods. To test their confidence, they were also asked to estimate the number of questions they believed they answered correctly.

Participants who read the full article answered the most questions correctly, while those who read the News Feed correctly answered only one question more often than the control group on average. But participants who read the News Feed were more likely to overestimate their knowledge, especially among those motivated to experience strong emotions.

This study reminds me of a conversation I had in college with a friend of mine. He had gone out on a couple of dates with a girl we both knew. She seemed fairly intelligent, and educated, but he decided he wasn’t interested. She “knew a little bit about a lot of things, and could converse about many subjects without seeming ignorant, but she didn’t really understand any of them”.

That description has stuck with me all of these years, and it’s something I am constantly reminded of with social media. Article headlines, Tweets, Facebook link previews, etc. are nice to describe what an article is about, but it’s no replacement for reading the article itself. It’s enough to not sound totally uninformed at a cocktail party, but it’s not enough to be as informed as you think you are. That’s a recipe for eventually making poor decisions, and looking quite foolish.

No one wants to look foolish, do they?

Read the articles, critically. No matter how much you think you know.

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