“FAKE NEWS” has been shouted louder than almost anything else over the last few years. Coming to the forefront with the wild accusations of Donald Trump, fake news has stayed an issue in the Covid-19 pandemic, continuing to support dangerous behaviour. Current efforts to mitigate the spread of misinformation rely on readers fact checking articles, but is this a viable strategy? It is often thought that IQ or political affiliation contribute to susceptibility to misinformation, but what actually does drive people to believe and spread obviously fake news?
Hong Tien Vu and Yvonnes Chen, at the University of Kentucky, shared eight versions of an article on the cancer-causing properties of vitamin B17 (a fictional substance), in an attempt to investigate the roles of author credentials and writing style on the perceived legitimacy of information, as these two features are often highlighted in media literacy programs. The ‘authors’ ranged from a doctor, to a mother of two, to a lifestyle blogger, each exhibiting vastly different writing styles. In addition to this, some of the articles were prominently flagged as containing unverified information.
Surprisingly, they found that neither author credentials nor writing style influenced the perception of credibility of the information or the likelihood that someone would reshare the article. Flagging the article, however, impacted both behaviours and led to an immediate increase in scepticism of the readers. In addition, social media efficacy was linked to being more suspicious of the information presented. These findings suggest that social media companies have a substantial responsibility to verify information and flag potential misinformation, as readers are not likely to discern real from fake news on their own.
Further substantiating this responsibility is the discovery that repeated exposure to misinformation decreases the view that spreading it is unethical. In research published in Psychological Science, Daniel Effron and Medha Raj exposed participants to fake-news headlines either one or four times and then again after a distraction task when they were explicitly told that all the headlines were false. When asking the participants about their opinions about the headlines, they found that previous repeated exposure made participants more likely to express approval of the headline and share it with others. This is an example of the illusory truth effect, demonstrated by Brashier et al. which describes the phenomenon in which repeated exposure to statements makes them seem more true, even if the information contradicts previous knowledge.
This further supports the necessity for big media companies to take responsibility of mitigating the spread of misinformation, both by flagging unverified information as well as by taking down and thereby limiting the spread of misinformation. This is particularly relevant given the detrimental effects of the politicisation of fearmongering surrounding vaccination and pandemic efforts, clearly showing how seemingly innocuous misinformation can have detrimental effects on public health.