New Research: Identity, Not Content, Influences Social Media Behavior

New MIT study on identity cues shows it’s not what is said, but who says it that matters

Photo by Akshar Dave🌻 on Unsplash

By Paula Klein

Should the identity of social media users be checked and verified? Will that help stem misinformation online? As the policy conversation on online identification, verification, and blue checks on Twitter heats up — in some cases to curb harmful speech and in some case for profits — understanding the effects of identity cues on opinions and communities will be critcally important, said MIT IDE Director, Sinan Aral.

That’s why a just-released, large-scale academic experimentation study that Aral co-authored on identity markers is so timely.

Based on two years of data, the study finds that verification leads social media users to much more quickly amplify posts, regardless of their actual substance.

In the new paper, published today in Nature Human Behavior, entitled “Identity Effects in Social Media,” Aral along with Sean Taylor, Lev Muchnik and Madhav Kumar, conducted a large-scale longitudinal field experiment to measure how identity cues shape content consumption and feedback online.

The researchers note that content and identity “are inextricably linked in social media. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Reddit, Netflix and Amazon all provide ‘identity cues’ that affect users’ decisions and choices about who to follow for the best content.” Therefore, the authors wanted to know “to what extent are opinions about products and content influenced by features of the content itself or the identity of the user associated with the content?”

Anonymous vs. Identified Users

In an 89-week experiment on a social news aggregation website similar to the researchers recorded the responses of over 6,400 viewers on nearly 350,000 comments generated by 3,725 commenters. For every viewer, each piece of content was randomly assigned to either an “anonymous” condition in which the viewer would not see the user name and other identifiers of the commenter, or an “identified” condition, where the viewer could see and click on the commenter’s user name directly above the comment.

The results showed the dramatic effects identity cues and reputation have on our perceptions of and engagement with online content. Identity effects accounted for up to 61 percent of the variation in voting, meaning that over half of the variance in users’ decisions to up-vote or down-vote content was explained by the presence or absence of identity cues, not on the accuracy of the information.

The presence of identity cues also caused viewers to evaluate content faster, implying greater reliance on initial “knee-jerk” reactions and System I thinking rather than longer, deliberative, System II thinking, Aral said.

Identity Markers Matter

“These results imply people’s opinions and engagement behaviors online are not just about — or even largely about — what someone is saying or posting online, but rather they are even more about who they are and what identity markers are associated with them,” Aral said

Elon Musk

“At a moment in history when we are publicly debating the use of verified identities and identity cues online, our research suggests that such cues have dramatic effects on how we perceive and engage with content.” And not all the implications are good.

“Rich-get-richer dynamics and inequality in social content evaluation are mediated by identity cues, which caused people to vote on content faster, and according to content producers’ reputations,” the research concludes.

Anonymous posting does help, however. The researchers demonstrated design solutions to curb reputation inequality and promote quality communication online. They showed, via simulation, that social platforms can improve content quality by recording some voting on anonymous content and including such votes on anonymized content as a ranking signal.

“We must start thinking deeply about platform designs that favor communication health,” said Sean Taylor, an independent researcher and co-author of the study. “One design we investigated was to include voting on anonymized posts in the ranking systems that display content to a platform’s users. Our simulations showed that including votes on anonymized content, which are more about what is being said than about who is saying it, can improve the quality of content online.”

Read the MIT press release here

Originally published at on November 10, 2022.



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