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What helps news articles go viral? Trust in those who post on social media, study finds

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An AP story was presented as coming from a false source, yet people trusted it if their friends did.

People trust their friends more than they do trusted news sources, a new study has found.

When it comes to social media, people are more likely to trust a news story that a friend has shared, regardless of the news outlet that originated the article.

That’s the finding of the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Results of the experimental study, released earlier this year, demonstrate that when people see a post from a trusted person rather than an untrusted person, they feel more likely to recommend the news source to friends, follow the source on social media, and sign up for news alerts from the source.

The study conducted an experiment in which 1,489 Americans were presented with a news feed item closely resembling Facebook. Everyone saw the same content, but the person who shared it and the original reporting source varied.

“We created a simulated Facebook post about health news and presented it to an online sample of 1,489 U.S. adults who are part of AmeriSpeak, NORC’s nationally representative survey panel,” the study reported. “Each person saw a health news post from one of eight public figures who often share information about health, a list that ranged from Oprah and Dr. Oz to the Surgeon General of the United States. Half the people were randomly assigned a sharer they had earlier identified as a person they trusted. The other half were randomly shown a sharer they had earlier said they didn’t trust.

After viewing the post, everyone saw the accompanying health article headlined: “Don’t let the scale fool you: Why you could still be at risk for diabetes.” This article was originally a piece written by a professor that appeared on The Associated Press (AP) website through an AP partnership. For half the sample, the article was labeled as coming from The AP. For the other half, the article was labeled as coming from a fictional source, something called the DailyNewsReview.com.

More than half of the people taking part in the study — 51 percent — said that the article was well reported when it was shared by a public figure they trust. Just a third (34 percent) felt that way when the same article is shared by someone they don’t trust. Fifty percent of readers thought the article got the facts right when the person who shared it was someone they trust. Just 34 percent say the same when they are skeptical of the sharer.

Whether the article was shared by someone they trust also affected readers’ likelihood of sharing the article.

“The sharer tends to have a greater significance on attitudes than the news organization that reported the article in the first place,” the study finds. “The reporting source still matters, according to the experiment, just not as much as who shared the article.” About half of the people in the experiment could recall who had shared the post, but only about 2 in 10 could remember the source of the article.

Study authors make a number of recommendations based on the experiment. Publishers and journalists, for example, should work on “creating strong communities of followers who evangelize the organization to others.”

“Your readers and followers are not just consumers to monetize, instead they may be social ambassadors whose own credibility with their friends affects your brand’s reputation,” the study authors say.

And social networks could do more to emphasize and provide information about the original sources for news articles.

“The fact that only 2 in 10 people in our experiment could recall the news reporting source accurately after seeing a Facebook-style post suggests that basic brand awareness has a long way to go,” the study notes. “We found that sharers affect perceptions more than the original news reporting source—but might that change if Facebook made the reporting source label more prominent?”

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