Why Does Fake News Spread?

Social media has been a great tool for linking up friends, family and reconnecting with people but it’s also had a profound influence on politics and public health. Not all of this has been for the good as we have seen the spreading of Fake News distort what is actually happening. To change a person’s mind once they have immersed themselves in Fake News, say about rigged elections which were fair, or vaccines being unnecessary which are vital to public health, becomes impossible to do. They are convinced that the Fake News is real and any discussion otherwise just entrenches their misconceptions more.

There’s nothing new about Fake News, only how it spreads. Historically it was done by paper – and took a lot longer to influence a fewer number of people.

In the 16th century posters went up around the city of Edinburgh portraying Mary Queen of Scots as a mermaid. Part of the propaganda then to smear her over sexual activities and promiscuity.

Smear campaigns are integral to Fake News. And once those smears are published it becomes more and more difficult to counteract them.

The old medium of printed newspapers was also extremely effective at spreading Fake News. ‘The Sun’ published horrendous lies about Liverpool fans after the disaster at Hillsborough. That won’t be republished here because like the People of Liverpool The Orkney News will never share anything from The Sun, but here is a link to The Guardian commenting about it.

Of course now we have social media and Fake News can spread ever more quickly around the world. In the past the spreaders of Fake News have been portrayed as being vulnerable or ignorant people who would believe anything that fitted into their world view. Now researchers at the University of California have looked deeper into this – and the reasons are more complex – and might just change how you share posts on social media.

 Wendy Wood, an expert on habits and USC emerita Provost Professor of psychology and business explained:

“Our findings show that misinformation isn’t spread through a deficit of users. It’s really a function of the structure of the social media sites themselves”.

The researchers found that users’ social media habits doubled and, in some cases, tripled the amount of fake news they shared. Their habits were more influential in sharing fake news than other factors, including political beliefs and lack of critical reasoning.

Gizem Ceylan, who led the study during her doctorate at USC Marshall and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale School of Management continued:

“The habits of social media users are a bigger driver of misinformation spread than individual attributes. We know from prior research that some people don’t process information critically, and others form opinions based on political biases, which also affects their ability to recognize false stories online.

 “However, we show that the reward structure of social media platforms plays a bigger role when it comes to misinformation spread.”

What this means is that the way social media platforms work is that the more you share a story, in this case Fake News, then the more interaction you will get. Even if you don’t agree with the views expressed in what you are sharing, the action you have taken in doing so, spreads it even further, so you have helped in the spreading of the Fake News. And it also means that you will see an increase in similar posts on your newsfeed – tempting you to share them also.

 Ian A. Anderson, a behavioural scientist and doctoral candidate at USC Dornsife said:

“This type of behaviour has been rewarded in the past by algorithms that prioritize engagement when selecting which posts users see in their news feed, and by the structure and design of the sites themselves.

“Understanding the dynamics behind misinformation spread is important given its political, health and social consequences.”

The researchers found that frequent, habitual users forwarded six times more fake news than occasional or new users.

If you are sharing something you need to be more aware that if it is Fake News, a view point you disagree with, the very action you take by sharing it, is aiding its spread to even more users.

Click on this link to access the research report: Sharing of misinformation is habitual, not just lazy or biased, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Fiona Grahame

3 replies »

  1. People like sensationalism. Many are more interested in what is lurid than in what is so. As you say Fiona, it’s something we humans have done through time and across cultures.

    It takes a bit more effort to track down the reality of situations – or, as near as we can get to the possible/probable reality. People like being fed with what’s easy for them to take on board.

    I’ve had someone standing in my Living-room, shouting at me for wearing a mask and being vaccinated, and telling me that she “knows people” who have died from being vaccinated. Her behaviour had a lot to do with hysteria – another contributing factor to human reactions to crisis.

    She won’t be standing in my Living-room again.

    The problem is – the misinformation, and the rot which it produces, can now be spread so much more widely and efficiently……

    To quote Maxi Jazz, again…”Misinformation is a weapon of mass destruction.”

    People like, to get ‘Likes’.

    Mud – sticks.

  2. The problem is that everyman and his dog are at it. It’s too tempting for some and impossible for others to resist.

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