How Did I Fall for That Post?

Article by: McKenna Hereford, Ph.D.

When we’re scrolling on social media, we constantly find accounts and posts giving information on a bunch of topics. It can even feel overwhelming at times! The past couple years, especially, have felt overwhelming and hard to know what information to trust. What’s worse is there has been a spike in misinformation, a range of slightly incorrect to totally fabricated information, especially surrounding mental health. What’s a common experience versus a problem? How do we know what is actually causing the problem? It’s no wonder social media use is tied to increases in anxiety!

How Misinformation Gets Us!

Even the best of us can fall prey to a post that exaggerates claims or spreads completely false claims! This is especially true when social media algorithms tend to prioritize quick snippets of information that neglect a lot of nuance. If you’ve talked to a therapist, you’ve likely heard the “it depends” answer, because the nuance is important! Accuracy is more important than ever, after researchers recently found that about 50% of TikTok videos featuring ADHD were incorrect (Yeoung et al., 2022). Here are some things that make us more vulnerable to falling for inaccurate information with a deep-dive below:

  • Cognitive failures
  • Familiarity
  • Motivation
  • Emotions from worldview

The first factor, cognitive failures, basically means that the person forgets about counter-evidence (Nan et al., 2022). They also might not naturally gravitate toward reasoning through opinions and considering other explanations, perspectives, or information. The person is less likely to take a step back and realize potential biases (that we all have!) that might be at play. Intuitive thinking also plays a role in this process, or the tendency to link pieces of information quickly or trust “the gut.” Of course, intuitive thinking can be helpful! Here’s where nuance comes in: when discussing misinformation, this type of thinking is more on the extreme end where the person is less likely to take a step back and consider multiple explanations or factors. 

Familiarity might make us more prone to misinformation, too. Let’s say we do have the ability to reason, but we’re constantly bombarded with misinformation: that is the familiarity! The illusory effect, for example, refers to the slow, gradual rabbit hole that forms over time (Nan et al., 2022). We scroll on social media and you see a post that seems a bit “off”, and another pops up that might also seem “off.” Over time, that exposure to the “offness” stops feeling that way and might start seeming more reasonable because we adjust to it. It’s no wonder, then, that we might know people who seem very different after spending a lot of time on social media!

Motivation might seem a bit odd when talking about misinformation, but multiple motivations might be present when scouring feeds on social media! For example, if the person has a strong motivation to reach a desired conclusion, they might be more likely to cling onto a post that already aligns with their current views on a topic (Nan et al., 2022). We might also lack motivation to pursue accurate and complex conclusions because of the extra effort required. If the new information drastically differs from what we believe already, we might be less likely to consider the new information.

It’s probably no surprise that our own worldview, experiences, and even identities may also shape how we interpret new information online. We might also overly identify with certain groups or belief systems, so when that group is criticized or attacked, it might feel like we personally are feeling attacked. While certainly it might apply to us directly, we might have strong emotional reactions regardless, because in those moments we might find difficulty in taking a step back to explore our reactions. 

All of these characteristics, along with many other factors, might activate biases or create difficulty in self-reflection. Knowledge is only the first step here, though. How do we know when to self-reflect? It seems impossible to constantly be on guard!

Red and Green Flags on Social Media

Now that you know some instances where we might be more susceptible to varying levels of accurate information, it might be helpful to also consider what we’re reading! Here are some red (and green flags) to look for while scrolling:

  • Lots of buzzwords
    • Look for accounts that explain what they’re talking about!
  • Black-and-white thinking
    • Look for posts that try to convey the nuance of mental health!
  • Emotionally charged language
    • Follow accounts that lay things out without eliciting strong emotions from you!
  • Focusing on one study or personal experience
    • Check for accounts that zoom out, look at the full picture of research, and share limitations of knowledge!

What Do I Do Now?

Now that we’ve discussed all the biases and what to look for, it’s time to put things to the test! When you’re scrolling, check in with yourself: what tends to bring out an emotional response? Take a few minutes to think about the why. What wording and stance is the poster taking? What are your own experiences and world beliefs related to whatever this is? During this time, try to look at other sources on the topic before coming to a conclusion. All of these steps take practice, and it’s okay if you still fall for it! The biggest takeaways here are how much is what the poster is doing and how much is from your own factors. Hopefully, this process helps you learn a little about yourself, too. If you notice consistent difficulty here, we’d be happy to help you at Deep Eddy Psychotherapy!


Citation: Nan, X., Wang, Y., & Their, Kathryn (2022). Why do people believe health misinformation and who is at risk? A systematic review of individual differences in susceptibility to health misinformation. Social Science and Medicine, 314, 115398. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.115398

Yeung A., Ng E., & Abi-Jaoude E. TikTok and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A cross-sectional study of social media content quality (2002). The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 67(12), 899-906. doi:10.1177/07067437221082854

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