Human Cognition and Online Behavior
Policy Paper

Human Cognition and Online Behavior During the First Social Media Pandemic

Breaking Down the Psychology of Online Information Consumption in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic
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The COVID-19 crisis is the first pandemic covered not only by broadcasters and official public health authorities but also by the relatively novel and complex ecosystem of search engines, messenger- apps and social media platforms, with their various users, influencers and groups. These platforms provide filtering, curation and pre-selection in an information-rich world. The exponential growth of information processing capacities has led to a plethora of sources and a rapid news cycle that exceeds the attention capacity of individuals.

This paper analyzes how the growing pressure to select, trust and share information interacts with the structure and design of social media platforms, with their self-organizing nature and with the psychology of a global crisis. Three consequences of this interplay are examined:

  1. Information consumers depend on algorithmic curation, which is exploited to serve the engagement-driven business model that drives almost all major online platforms.
  2. As in other crises, the pandemic has created a need for information that is partly met by social media, despite relative mistrust in their reliability.
  3. Two networking patterns in social media represent these tendencies: communities of well-connected individuals, and hubs or influencers. Both are potentially vulnerable in a fact-based information ecosystem, as communities can easily become breeding grounds for confirmatory beliefs such as conspiracy theories and influencers can be very effective at disseminating low-quality information if they are not experts themselves.

The policy recommendations presented in this paper address these interplays by explicitly taking into account human psychology in the context of online environments, in the throes of a crisis and beyond. They aim to improve the decision-making environment of every individual who needs to evaluate information and decide whether to share it by improving context, social information and choice architecture. 

Product details
Date of Publication
February 2021
Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI)
Number of Pages
Language of publication
Table of contents

Executive Summary

01 Introduction

02 Psychology of Information Consumption Online

    2.1 Dependence on Algorithmic Curation 8

    2.2 The Pandemic and Other Crises 8

    2.3 Network Effects on Information Consumption 10

03 How to Build a Resilient Information Ecosystem Online

04 Conclusions