Social media users often refrain from calling out misinformation and conspiracy theories they encounter online because they want to avoid conflict, according to a report from the Everyday Misinformation Project, an initiative associated with Loughborough University in the U.K that investigates how misleading information spreads online.

Researchers conducted interviews with more than 100 people in the U.K. and asked respondents about their behaviors when using personal messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Everyday Misinformation Project

The study determined that people widely exhibit conflict avoidance when communicating with family, friends and colleagues on these forums, often failing to speak up when encountering content such as COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, even if they disagree with it.

Respondents said they often decline to engage on the subject altogether out of fear that if they try to correct what they perceive as false information, they’ll be seen as provoking conflict or undermining group cohesion.

Others expressed insecurity about their own command of the facts and their ability to adequately criticize that misinformation. This often leads some to instead direct their criticisms of vaccine misinformation only to those who share their opinions or with groups they perceive to be less risky.

Researchers posited that online personal messaging forums encourage what they called “hybrid public-interpersonal communication,” where people draw different social boundaries between misinformation they encounter in the public sphere and misinformation they encounter in online messaging forums, where misinformation is often the norm.

Researchers commented on the implications for this dual set of norms, suggesting that, paradoxically, letting online misinformation go unchallenged sends a tacit approval to those who share it, which legitimizes their false claims and increases the likelihood of its continued spread.