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New Research Study Finds Identity Matters on Social Media

New MIT Sloan research on identity cues in social media shows it’s not just what is said, but who says it that matters

November 10, 2022

Should the identity of social media users be checked and verified? 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 very 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.

The new paper, published 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. 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 username and other identifiers of the commenter, or an “identified” condition, where the viewer could see and click on the commenter’s username directly above the comment.

The results showed the dramatic effects identity cues 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. 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.

“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. “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.”

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.

Read the MIT press release here