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Facebook as a conduit for misinformation and racism

Wednesday, June 11, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

Know what you did wrong

We first saw this article on Eye on Psych blog and thought it interesting for our use as well. The Eye on Psych blog had previously focused on the assumption that not being on Facebook makes you somehow unsavory (because, after all, everyone should be on Facebook!).

The study we are going to describe today looks at how often you visit Facebook and whether your reasons for those visits are social and personal or more informational in nature.

The researchers predicted that frequent Facebook visitors were caught up in a “culture of belongingness” and thus may not review posts with much cognitive depth. In other words, they may be cognitively lazy as they view Facebook posts and ‘like’ pretty much anything. However, they suspected that would vary between Facebook users with a need to belong and those Facebook users who instead visited more to find information.

Their research participants were 623 internet users (69% female, 18-66 years old with an average age of 23.7 years). The participants had accessed the study through a website of psychology studies. The majority (71%) were students and 94.7% of the sample had a current Facebook account.

Participants reported their frequency of Facebook use and the reasons for which they visited Facebook. After answering some demographic and background questions, participants saw a sample Facebook page of race-related persuasive messages written (ostensibly) by a 26-year-old white male named Jack Brown. “The file picture was a silhouette of the back of a male walking on the beach and no other details about the writer were provided.”

There were three versions of the page shown to the participants: two expressed negative racial attitudes (e.g., the racial superiority and Whites as victims conditions) and one expressed an egalitarian attitude (e.g., the egalitarian condition). The authors describe each stimulus at some length in the actual article.

The participants read the message for whichever condition they were assigned, and were then asked to describe how much they agreed with the message they read, how accurate they thought it was, how knowledgeable they thought the writer was, how much they liked the writer, and how similar to the writer they saw themselves as being. These items were combined to form a composite index of message attitude.

Then, those participants who had Facebook accounts (the vast majority) were asked how likely they would be to ask Jack to be their Facebook friend, click ‘like’ on his post, share his note with others, argue against his note, support his note in a comment, hide his posts, unfriend him, or suggest him to other friends. These items were combined to form a composite index of behavioral intention.

The researchers found the strongest motivation for Facebook use was to connect with others (and say this is consistent with prior research). Information seeking is a less common motivation. Reactions to the messages posted by “Jack” though, were mixed.

The egalitarian message was seen more positively than either the superiority message or a victim message. When it came to Facebook behaviors like “liking” or “unfriending”, research participants thought they would act in much the same way toward the victim message as they would toward the egalitarian message.

The more frequently users logged into Facebook, the more likely they were to agree with the negative messages Jack posted and more likely to have positive behavioral intentions toward Jack. Less frequent users were more likely to disagree with the negative messages.

Those who logged into Facebook for informational purposes were more likely to reject negative messages and more likely to accept the egalitarian message.

The researchers believe that frequent Facebook users process information less critically and agree with posts due to a need to be accepted and belong. Conversely, they believe that those Facebook users seeking information (and not so much acceptance or belonging) tend to more critically assess the information they see on Facebook and are not as interested in being accepted or belonging as they are in rejecting messages that promote racism and accepting messages that promote egalitarian thought.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s an intriguing issue to consider for voir dire.

If you know you want jurors who are not going to think deeply about your case–do you want Facebook users who log on for personal and emotional belonging and connection?

And if you want jurors who will carefully consider the evidence, do you want those who use Facebook more for informational purposes? And how do you ask those questions in voir dire?

As ever-growing numbers of people get their “news” from unvetted and unvalidated social media sources, these are not casual concerns. If there is a pattern (in general) across Facebook users to either log in for social/personal connection or log in for information and that pattern points to different kinds of cognitive processing–that’s an important voir dire consideration.

Rauch, S., & Schanz, K. (2013). Advancing racism with Facebook: Frequency and purpose of Facebook use and the acceptance of prejudiced and egalitarian messages Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (3), 610-615 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.11.011

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