The Psychology of  Misinformation on Facebook

Use your keyboard arrows
to view the story!

Growth.Design Case Study #024
Story Duration: 4 min

Avatar displaying current emotion

Facebook is a polarized platform.

This became even more obvious with the big events of the last few years (elections, COVID-19, etc).

In fact—

Avatar displaying current emotion

Facebook's misinformation has TRIPLED since 2016.

Avatar displaying current emotion

There are five main reasons for this.

We call them—

—The Five A's of Misinformation:

1. 🤖 Algorithm
2. 👁 Availability
3. ✋ Ability
4. 📣 Amplification
5. 🔥 Ambiguity

Let's start with the first "A"…

Facebook is optimized for
high-engagement. But—

Avatar displaying current emotion


—since we're more likely to interact with content that triggers strong emotions like fear, disgust and anger…

feed algorithms rank those posts higher (even if some of those stories are false).

Now, when we're emotional, "critical thinking" isn't our brain's top priority.

So while we explore our feeds… {swipe}

False stories spread 600% faster Than Facts

A recent study from MIT showed that false news travel 600% faster than true stories on social media.1

1MIT, Study on the spread of false news (2018)
Avatar displaying current emotion

…Facebook shows us shocking news that support our political views.

That's because Facebook knows our brain loves information that confirms what we already believe.

Confirmation Bias

People tend to search for, interpret, prefer, and recall information in a way that reinforces their personal beliefs.1

Since Facebook optimizes for what users want to see, it creates what experts call "filter bubbles".2

1Growth.Design, List of Cognitive Biases (2020)
2Wikipedia, Filter bubbles (2020)


Avatar displaying current emotion

Plus, the feed is optimized for interaction.

That makes it easy to amplify any message with a simple tap

Second-Order Effects

Every action has a consequence. And each consequence has another consequence (sometimes undesirable).

These are called Second-Order Effects.1

For example:

  • Facebook & Twitter prompting shares
    = More shares = blind shares2.
  • Instagram encouraging likes
    = focus on likes = social pressure.
1Wilmer Pan, 2nd-order effect in product design (2019) 2Independent, Columbia University Study

…so much so that 59% of links shared on social media are shared without ever being read.

It's called
"🙈 Blind Sharing".


Avatar displaying current emotion

Bandwagon Effect

The growth rate of trends increases in proportion to the number of other people who have already adopted them.1

1Psychology Today, Why We Are So Easily Manipulated


And the more people share that content…

—the more likely other people are to  share it as well.

Avatar displaying current emotion

Oh—and you might think that this "blood-drinking" ad example is ridiculous, right?

Well, independent fact-checkers reviewed 150 million Facebook posts so far, but…


Avatar displaying current emotion


…Facebook decided that they should not fact-check politicians' ads.

In other words, that weird ad would be tolerated.

In addition, opinion and speech from politicians is not eligible to be fact-checked.

Avatar displaying current emotion

And when it comes to content moderation, we saw several examples recently where that back-fired massively. 

Streisand Effect

Trying to censor information can have the unintended consequence of further publicizing that information1… often making things worse for the censor.

For example, in Oct 2020, Twitter's censorship of the NYPost article about Biden ended up doubling its viral reach.2

1Wikipedia, Streisand Effect (2020)
2Axios, Facebook Reluctant Gatekeeper (2020)

Censorship is a really slippery slope because you don't want Facebook to decide what's true or false.

(…and Facebook neither because they don't want to be liable)


Avatar displaying current emotion

So think about it…

…how would you minimize misinformation?


Remember the 59% of "🙈 Blind Shares"?

What if—

Avatar displaying current emotion

Using Data For Good

Facebook already tracks if you've clicked an article and how long you've read it. Why not use that data for good? (vs mainly for advertising)

A Forbes editor suggested a similar concept a few years ago.1

It has since been supported and iterated on by many, including an approach with an even higher barrier to sharing by the media literacy project ThinkFirst News.2

1Forbes, What If Facebook And Twitter Made You Read An Article Before You Could Share It? (2017)
2ThinkFirst News, Read Before You Share (2020)


—when you're about to share a post without reading it first{tap}

…Facebook would simply encourage you to read the article?

In a world of growing misinformation, supporting the truth should be everyone's responsibility.

Avatar displaying current emotion


Oh and I first thought that Facebook would never add this kind of friction because they wouldn't want to hurt their revenues. But…

…the same could've been
said of Instagram's
"You're All Caught Up":





—and Facebook implemented it anyways.

(so there's hope!)

Avatar displaying current emotion

By the way, between the time we first drafted this case study and we released it…

Twitter released a new sharing experience designed to minimize misinformation.

Avatar displaying current emotion

It's similar to the one I showed you earlier. And in their tests…

33% more people opened an article before retweeting it.

Oh, and one last thing for you…

That means less blind sharing, which reduces the reach of misinformation by millions.

Small change. Big impact.

User Psychology Cheat sheet

Get this cheat sheet to improve your UX:

  • 101 product psychology principles
  • 4 easy-to-remember categories
  • Links to tons of examples

Yes, I want this cheat sheet

As a product community, we have the responsibility to encourage behaviors that are good for our users

…and for society. 🙏

👋 Now it's your turn


Q1: What did you think of the "read before you share" solution?


Q2: How would you improve it?


We're just one reply away on Twitter.


PS: Yes, we reply to everyone.

🎉 Congrats! You found the secret slides!

Good job!

You completed Growth.Design's Case Study #024:
"The Psychology of Misinformation on Facebook"