Misinformation on social media is not a new problem, but we may never have felt its impact so strongly as in 2020. That’s because this year misinformation has contributed to the death of thousands from coronavirus. The problem of combating incorrect health advice has seemed insurmountable. But now new research suggests that there may be a way to help people read what they see more critically.

At a time where wearing masks and social distancing has profound power to slow or even stop the coronavirus outbreak, many Americans are choosing not to do it. Why has it been so hard to get people to adopt these simple measures? There are many reasons, including that people have a hard time understanding exponential spread or the way our brain has a hard time noticing consequences that happen three weeks later.

But the impact of misinformation on social media cannot be minimized. What we choose to post on social media has literally become a matter of life and death, because it influence decisions people make.

According to a new report in the journal Psychological Science, priming people to think about accuracy can make them more careful about what they later post on social media.

People fall for fake news when they use intuition.

“People often assume that misinformation and fake news is shared online because people are incapable of distinguishing between what is true and what is false,” said lead author Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina, Canada in a press release. “Our research reveals that is not necessarily the case. Instead, we find that people tend to share false information about COVID-19 on social media because they simply fail to think about accuracy when making decisions about what to share with others.”

The research team ran two studies, enlisting 1700 adults. In one study they collected 15 false and 15 true headlines about Covid-19. The team ran the headlines through a rigorous fact checking process to determine their truthfulness. Sources included reliable sites like mayoclinic.com and livescience.com, and mythbusters like snopes.com.

Researchers then presented the headlines to study participants as Facebook posts. The participants then told them whether they thought the posts were accurate and if they would share them. That’s when researchers found that people are more likely to share misleading information if they relied on intuition. They also found that, generally speaking, people didn’t think a lot about accuracy when they looked at these posts.

Considering accuracy helps people spot fake news.

But that changed in the second study, when the researchers primed participants to consider accuracy when looking at the social media posts. How did they prime them? They did it indirectly by having participants rate the accuracy of one COVID-19 related headline before showing them others. That was was enough to double how discerning they were in sharing on social media later in the study.

The results are in line with previous research on political fake news. And that means there is a growing body of evidence that we can help people interact with social media differently. The researchers suggested that social media platforms start including “subtle accuracy nudges” to help people think more critically.

“We need to change the way that we interact with social media,” said Pennycook. “Individuals need to remember to stop and think about whether something is true before they share it with others.”

Fake news on social media has fueled the pandemic.

If a mental nudge to consider accuracy can make such a difference, consider the impact of information shared by friends and neighbors. Social media works becuase it is social. It is a way we connect with each other, and it’s a way we influence each other.

We influence each other. When we share medical misinformation that downplays the danger of coronavirus, or post pictures of ourselves at parties without masks on, we influence those close to us. A post has more weight if it comes from someone we know than if it comes from a public health advisor.

Misinformation spread on social media has hastened the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in America. But we can help each other by nudging our friends and connections to consider accuracy when they read information.