They’ve been spouting the same old misinformation in the family group chat for the past year, but nobody ever challenges them – why is that?
Professor Andrew Chadwick, an expert in Political Communication, is one of the authors of a first-of-a-kind public report that reveals the social norms that shape whether people challenge misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines in the largely hidden worlds of personal messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
He discusses the conclusions of the report, which is based on nine months of intensive fieldwork funded by the Leverhulme Trust, in the latest episode of the Cuppa with a Scientist podcast and highlights the impact of ‘conflict avoidance’.
“Conflict avoidance is one of those things that we all encounter in our everyday interactions”, explains Professor Chadwick.
“You know, whether it's with our friends, our family, you don't want to be having arguments with people all the time because at the end of the day, that's not what being a friend or family member is all about.
“As part of our research, we did in-depth, highly-detailed interviews with 102 people to tell us about their experiences of seeing people posting into their personal messaging interactions – whether it's one-to-one groups, small groups, or larger groups.
“A very common finding across most of the participants was this theme of conflict avoidance. It really does get in the way of people speaking up against misinformation about vaccines in their personal messaging.
“The outcome is that misperceptions and misinformation tend to circulate more freely than we'd like to admit, because people don't feel confident calling it out for all kinds of reasons to do with their social relationships.
“They don't want to fall out with people. They don't want to stand out as being the person who's awkward or is pointing out what somebody said or is judging somebody.”
Professor Chadwick says conflict avoidance and other aspects of everyday social interactions have mostly been ignored in social science research on misinformation. The study findings highlight the importance of delving into social relationship factors to better understand how misinformation spreads.
“We argue that the social dynamics studied in the project have been badly neglected in lots of research on misinformation”, he said.
“A lot of the research on misinformation just says you just need to get the right information in front of people and expose them to it.
“What we're arguing is that there's a whole layer beneath that, which is to do with people's social relationships; they are important in determining whether misinformation spreads or not and they haven't really been studied.”
Professor Chadwick’s interview on Cuppa with a Scientist can be watched in full on YouTube. In addition to his research, he discusses his personal academic journey, advice for students hoping to pursue communication as a taught degree or a PhD, and how social sciences can improve our online communication.
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More on Professor Chadwick’s report looking at COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on online personal messaging platforms can be found in the dedicated press release.