Reading is Believing? Epistemic vigilance and perceived credibility of online information

Over the last decade, we have seen a significant rise in the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories in online media. Highly influential individuals – through their posts on social media such as Twitter or their appearances on podcasts – oftentimes play a crucial role in the proliferation of false information. Previous research has shown that when we view someone as a credible source of information, we are more charitable when interpreting and assessing their utterances, but the underlying mechanisms of the process remain unclear. In our research project, to better understand the spread of misinformation, we studied how participants read and assess online texts of an individual that they perceive to be highly trustworthy.

Our experiment consisted of three parts. Eighty participants, recruited from the Tilburg University participant pool, filled in a questionnaire to determine to what extent they were in awe of Musk. One week after filling in the questionnaire, participants were asked to come to the laboratory to read two transcripts of a (fictitious) podcast called Science Vision Podcast: an interview (presumably) with Musk and the other with an (imaginary) scientist called Dr. Sam Cameron Brown. In order to investigate how individuals attend to misinformation, we tracked participants’ eye movement and asked them to report whenever they caught their minds wandering while reading the two interviews. Subsequently, we measured free recall of and assent to five controversial topics addressed by Musk and the scientist – including extraterrestrial life, space-travel, and astrology.

During the symposium, we will present the preliminary results of our research. We will outline the influence of being in awe on reading style and belief formation, and explain what the differences in eye-movement and mind-wandering between participants reveal about their attention and processing of information. We end by reflecting on the possible implications of this study for education and policy.

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Digital Humanities Tilburg