Myth-trusters: why do we believe @uberfacts?

They’re unavoidable, they’re pervasive, they’re the common cold of Twitter. Accounts that tweet sensational facts work their way into your timeline whether you follow them or not. The perfect conversation-starters, facts to make anyone seem well read and interesting—all aggregated on one account. Did you know: “prostaglandins, a component of semen, act as anti-depressants?” This is what the internet was created for. The free dissemination of knowledge to all. And what a wonder @uberfacts is; an account with more than 6.7 million followers. We truly are living in a golden age of information.

But surely this is too good to be true? Where is the @uberfacts black book of information and how can we ordinary people get access to it?

I performed a micro content analysis on one day’s (21 May 2014) output of the @uberfacts Twitter account. In total, 39 tweets were posted, of which 25 could approximately be considered to contain scientific content. The scientific content could be further divided into psychology/sociology (14), biology (6), medicine (4) and physics (1). The psychology/sociology bracket makes up the largest single category in @uberfacts output.

Although not explicitly a scientific account, the majority of its tweets fall into scientific categories. This would surely make validating these tweets much easier—either something is correct or it isn’t, and if it is correct, it should be published. But let’s not pretend that science is nice and neat and tidy like that. It’s far easier to find out who Ash’s first Pokémon was than the effects of sports bras on breast ‘sagging.’

In most cases it was possible to find another source for @uberfacts facts, although only 15 tweets could be traced to a published journal article. It’s difficult to establish exactly when each of these facts first appeared on @uberfacts because it cycles its tweets. Many of the facts have been tweeted multiple times over the last few years and as a result have found their way onto other Twitter accounts and factsites (inagist.comWTFfacts), copied verbatim. The repetition of tweets seems to create a self-validation. If enough accounts say the same thing it must be true.

Lots of tweets featured specific statistics which helped with validation, although the only tweet to specifically mention an institution seemed to be plucked from thin air.

I think the most interesting thing about this process is seeing what information is lost in a tweet. “Honey is so easy to digest because it has already been digested by a bee” is correct, although lacking any specific detail. It’s true that honey is easier to digest than sucrose. Honey is made up of fructose and glucose which is broken down in the digestive system earlier than sucrose would be. It is true that bees add enzymes that turn sucrose from nectar into fructose and glucose. So it is also true that honey is easy to digest because bees have digested it first. But all of the information that makes that fact useful and interesting is lost. And what percentage of readers of that tweet will bother to find out why?

You could argue that this is a fault in the Twitter format, that 140 characters is too few to fully explain many of these facts, but how would a hyperlink to an appropriate journal article affect each tweet? The average length of an @uberfacts tweet is 88 characters, leaving 52 characters to play with. The average length of a hyperlink (when compressed) to one of the journal articles validating these tweets is 43 characters. I don’t think anyone is pretending that @uberfacts gather their material from source, or spend hours trawling obscure journals for interesting studies. The easiest way to validate many of these facts was to find an article first published by a news outlet (such as this one). This is probably where many of these tweets originate. But by this stage, an editorial decision has already taken place, an angle found, so by the time it has been condensed into 140 characters the root fact may only be tenuously related to the tweet.

In total, nine of the 25 scientific tweets were true, five were ambiguous or inconclusive and I couldn’t find evidence for 11. Interestingly, of the 14 non-scientific tweets only 1 was outright correct— “The Nazis invented exploding chocolate bars.” I won’t pretend that my content analysis was in any way comprehensive, but really this was an exercise in putting myths to bed. The conclusion: it’s really hard. I’d be kidding no one if I said it’s a sensible idea to check @uberfacts tweets before retweeting, but it’s our impulse to share interesting facts that helps to propagate these myths. We instinctively want to tell each other when we hear an interesting fact rather than delve into Google Scholar for a paper on consumer research.

Is there something about Twitter that makes the format more believable? Why don’t we question what we read on there? Well, perhaps because one of the greatest strengths of the medium is as a bypass for validation. If you want to find out the latest news on a riot in your area, head to Twitter. By the time a news outlet has tweeted a story it will already have its own hashtag. If you follow football you would probably have heard that David Moyes was sacked as Manchester United manager the day before even he found out. On Twitter speed is a virtue. Don’t question, retweet.

This article first appeared on Refractive Index (22/5/2014)

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