Sharing online content – even without reading it – inflates subjective knowledge, study shows

According to a research from the University of Texas, sharing a piece of information or an article on social media platforms makes people overconfident in their knowledge of that content. Even if they haven’t read the articles, people feel that they know more about those articles than they do.

The researchers from University of Texas conducted a couple of studies. For the first study, researchers gave some news articles to 98 undergraduate students and told them they can read, share, or do both with these articles. All news articles were online. Some of the headlines of these online news articles were “Men are Better at Recognizing Flirting Than Women Are” and “Why it Pays to Be a Jerk.”

In the next step of the study, the researchers from the University of Texas checked the undergraduate students’ subjective and objective knowledge for each given article. They measured what undergraduate students thought they knew about these articles, and what they actually knew. Objective and subjective knowledge are increased in the students who read the articles. But most importantly, subjective knowledge in the students who shared the articles without reading them increased and objective knowledge was lacked.

For the second study, the team from the University of Texas checked the subjective knowledge difference between the undergraduate students who were asked to share an article that had tips on cancer prevention and those who didn’t share the article.

Students who shared the article without reading it convinced themselves that they knew more about cancer than students who didn’t share the article. The results of these two studies provide evidence that sharing an article on social media platforms can cause increases in subjective knowledge, even when people lack objective knowledge.

Abstract of the research

“Billions of people across the globe use social media to acquire and share information. A large and growing body of research examines how consuming online content affects what people know. The present research investigates a complementary, yet previously unstudied question: how might sharing online content affect what people think they know?

Sharing signals expertise, and people frequently internalize their public behavior into their private self-concepts. We therefore posit that sharing information on social media may cause people to believe they are as knowledgeable as their posts make them appear. We examine this possibility in the context of “sharing without reading,” a phenomenon that allows us to isolate the effect of sharing on subjective knowledge from any influence of reading or objective knowledge.

Six studies provide correlational (study 1) and causal (studies 2, 2a) evidence that sharing—even without reading—increases subjective knowledge, and test the internalization mechanism by varying the degree to which sharing publicly commits the sharer to an expert identity (studies 3–5). A seventh study investigates potential consequences of sharing-inflated subjective knowledge on downstream behavior in the domain of financial decision-making.”

We Don’t Read

A recent study also shows that 59% of all links shared on social networks aren’t clicked on at all, implying the majority of article shares aren’t based on actual reading. People are sharing articles without ever getting past the headlines. IFLScience.com recently conducted an experiment, publishing an article titled Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms. The article, as of now, has over 141,000 shares, and it isn’t about marijuana or alien DNA at all — it’s an experiment to see how many shares it could attract with an outrageous headline alone. IFLScience states within the post that “We here at IFLS noticed long ago that many of our followers will happily like, share, and offer an opinion on an article — all without ever reading it.”