We’ve written previously about the amount of faith people have in online “facts” and social media. The Internet is full of people who have a hard time separating fact from fiction, and we know this because their own social media profiles give them away. Sometimes we can just shake our heads and laugh at this tendency. But in some cases, it’s genuinely troubling.

A study published in the “Journal of Advertising” suggests that too many people put too much faith in anonymous comments found at the end of online articles. For this study, the authors created two fake PSAs about vaccination: one pro-vaccination, supposedly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the other anti-vaccination, supposedly from the National Vaccine Information Center. Comments from fake readers followed each article, with no information given as to who these commenters were supposed to be. Study participants read each article, then answered survey questions about whether they were likely to vaccinate their families.

A second scenario changed only the fact that identifying details were given for the fake commenters: one was an M.D., one a college professor, and several other seemingly credible sources. By comparing the survey responses of the two groups, researchers found that participants found commenters they believed to be credible were more believable than the PSAs themselves. In other words, they were more likely to take the word of an Internet commenter claiming to be a doctor than the word of the CDC.

That’s an Exceptionally Bad Idea
There’s a reason the term “healthy skepticism” exists. At times, we need to put aside a trusting nature and replace it with some disbelief—just because an online commenter claims to be a doctor doesn’t make it so. Anyone can add “M.D.” behind his name on a Facebook profile. Yes, you should apply the same skepticism to the PSA itself, but when the voice contradicting something like the CDC is “that one guy on the Internet who says he’s a doctor,” the more reliable source seems clear.

Some, but not all, online commenting software pairs with Facebook profiles as a sort of commenter verification system. But that’s no guarantee of accurate commenting. Even Facebook admits that it has up to 14.3 million fake accounts that were created just for spamming. Some of these are obvious, like the “I make $4,000 a week working from home” comments. Others aren’t so obvious and can easily be used to spread false information. You have no way of knowing whether a commenter is legitimate, and many who are legitimate have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

Subject Matter Doesn’t Necessarily Matter
This study used vaccinations as its subject matter, but the same phenomenon damages other discussions, too. A University of Wisconsin study noted that “uncivil” comments regarding scientific topics can alter how we perceive logical arguments. That study caused “Popular Science” to stop allowing commentary on its online articles. The publication leaders felt that rude, uninformed, and deliberately misleading comments were causing people to think that certain well-established scientific conclusions weren’t so settled.

Marketers know that consumers tend to trust other consumers’ views on a product more than they trust the product’s maker. In fact, one marketing study found that 70 percent of consumers trust online reviews—second only to recommendations from friends and family in terms of influence on buying behavior.

If we’ve essentially trained ourselves to seek out and trust user reviews of the products we buy, maybe we’ve tricked ourselves into doing the same when it comes to much more important subject matters. It’s one thing to trust online reviews of a TV or microwave we’re considering buying, but it’s another thing to trust online comments of medical science.

The Truth Is Out There
Sadly, you probably shouldn’t believe much that you hear or read on or offline at face value. It’s always a good idea to verify your sources before you make a big decision. We can tell you that you might be able to find a better Internet plan for less than you’re paying now—but why not check for yourself?

Or view all providers

Photo Credit: Aku S. Photography/Flikr