A study from Ohio State University, led by Ph.D. student Daniel Sude, has found that people tend to lean toward self-expression instead of actually reading an article online. In other words, they're more interested in performatively demonstrating they likely hold a particular view than actually reading the supporting documentation in full. Who would've thought?
The study confirms the suspicion many of us have had about social media networks, their impact on critical thinking, dark patterns, and interactive design: readers will turn to upvotes and downvotes when it comes to controversial articles instead of fully engaging with the content and then making an informed opinion of their own.
The study found that a pool of 235 college students spent seven percent less time on reading an article if they had the option of an interactive element. The topics ranged from affirmative action and gun control to welfare benefits and abortion. For each subject, there were four news articles from a website for the study. Two leaned conservative, two skewed liberal. The results remained consistent throughout. If a post hard the option to be liked (or disliked) by a participant they were less likely to read it all the way through.
What Sude says — In a press release about the study, Sude explains the pervasive thread it discovered:
When people are voting whether they like or dislike an article, they’re expressing themselves. They are focused on their own thoughts and less on the content in the article. [...] It is like the old phrase, 'If you’re talking, you’re not listening.' People were talking back to the articles without listening to what they had to say.
Sude noted students spent more time reading articles they agreed with by 1.5 minutes. This likely points to the human impulse for confirmation bias. When it came to content they disagreed with, students would abandon it sooner. Having recently endured the first presidential debate of 2020, we can't say we blame them.
The flaw is in the design — Social buttons are all over the internet. They are designed to assign valencies around quality and approval to user-generated content like posts, tweets, comments, and shared articles. They are also designed to encourage and boost user engagement — even if it means user engagement without critical thought. The problem isn't exactly with the participants but the creators of these buttons who — inadvertently or not — enable an echo chamber by design. That's how dark patterns work. And that's why we need to change the incentives driving social networks.