Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Susceptible to Fake News, but for Different Reasons


Humans are motivated reasoners. When we see a news article that confirms something we think to be true or we want to be true, we quickly "like" it and then share it vehemently on Facebook. Take this news story, for instance, which declares that "Cheese protects you from all causes of death, says science."* Most cheese lovers probably didn't look too deeply into the scientific literature before they shared it among their friends.

This applies not just to scientific news stories, but also to politically-based "fake news." Since the 2016 presidency, the use of the phrase exploded, with a more than 350% increase in popular usage. Collins Dictionary even named it word of the year in 2017. Surprisingly, however, the concept of fake news has received little attention within the social psychological literature. Is everyone susceptible to believing fake news, or is it mostly just Republicans (as anecdotes suggest)?

In a recent preprint, Craig Harper and Thom Baguley presented the results of three well-powered studies using American and British samples to investigate whether liberals and conservatives are equally motivated to believe fake news. The researchers presented both positive and negative fake news stories written for the purposes of the study. For each story, a 'TV breaking news' image was shown, along with a short written news story to supplement the image.

For instance, in the first study stories were either favorable or unfavorable about either former President Barack Obama or current President Donald Trump. Favorable stories reported that the target had donated $50 million of their personal fortune to selected charities, while the unfavorable stories reported that the target was facing criminal charges related to voter fraud in the 2016 Presidential election. Participants then made "legitimacy judgments" of each story, rating how much they believed the story to be true, reliable, and trustworthy. This is what they found.

Are Liberals and Conservatives Equally Susceptible to Fake News?

The answer is yes. The researchers found that people on both sides of the traditional left-right divide are equally likely to believe political news that is consistent with their ideology, and to disbelieve news that is inconsistent with their side. For instance, liberals judged the anti-Trump story as being much more legitimate than the pro-Trump story, with conservatives showing the opposite judgment.

Interestingly, these effects were even more pronounced when they replaced binary party preferences with party warmth judgments. In other words, if you are way left or way right you are even more likely to cognitively distort yourself in all sorts of ways to either believe the news (if it supports your party) or bend over backwards to disconfirm it (if it disconfirms your party's line). The researchers conclude that "people infer news legitimacy in a way that appears motivated by their own ideological positioning." These findings are very much in line with Jonathan Haidt's account of motivated reasoning being a big source of divisions in politics and religion.

This finding is also consistent with other research suggesting that there are symmetries among both liberals and conservatives when it comes to motivated reasoning. For instance, liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another's opinions, and are similarly motivated to deny scientific findings that are inconsistent with their ideology.

On the slightly more hopeful side, the average ratings of legitimacy of fake news for both groups was below the midpoint of the scale. This suggests that most people do have at least some capacity to discern true stories from those that are false. In fact, the researchers found it was important to consider three particular variables to determine whether someone within their party would be particularly susceptible to fake news.

Thinking Styles and Collective Narcissism

We each differ in our preferred mode of thinking. Some people tend to think with their head and are motivated to seek out and process information, whereas others tend to think with their gut, motivated to action by their instincts and intuitions. You may think that those who report that they are super rational and logical would be less likely to fall prey to motivated reasoning, right? Well, the results may surprise you.

The researchers measured individual differences in thinking styles and found that regardless of the political party identification, when high need for cognition individuals were presented with fake news stories that were consistent with their ideology, they were even more likely than everyone else to judge the story as legitimate, and when they were faced with fake news story that were inconsistent with their ideology, they were even less likely to consider the news legitimate than everyone else.

One possible explanation is that highly logical and rational people are not only more likely to disbelieve politically-inconsistent news stories along tribal lines, but they are also more likely to seek out further disconfirming information, thus exaggerating their disbelief of politically-inconsistent stories. This is consistent with research showing that people who score high in need for cognition tend to build information rich social networks, but of course this can be problematic when your rich social networks are still operating in an echo chamber.

The researchers found some asymmetries, however. Conservatives who scored high in faith intuition (i.e., those who tend to think with their gut instincts) had higher perceptions of the legitimacy among fake news, although this variable had little effect on the judgments of liberals. The researchers suggest that conservatives may be most susceptible on average to fall prey to fake news stories, considering that they are the group most likely to be exposed to such material online, and they are also the group with the highest average levels of faith in intuition.

However, liberals aren't off the hook, as they are statistically more likely to use investment in the righteousness of their political viewpoints to believe politically-consistent news stories, and their higher level of need for cognition to delegitimize politically-inconsistent news stories. The researchers found that liberals who scored higher in a measure of "collective narcissism"-- which measures a tendency to invest in, and perceive superiority of, your political views--showed exaggerated legitimacy judgments for the politically-consistent (e.g., anti-Trump) fake news stories. This data is interesting because it suggests that collective narcissism is not only a right-wing populist phenomenon.

Taken together, all of these findings are consistent with an identity-based approach to the understanding of politically and ideologically motivated engagement with "fake news." It's clear that we must view fake news engagement through a motivated reasoning lens, and that both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to fake news, even though the underlying motives may differ within each group.

These findings further emphasize the importance of really thinking through how the spread of political misinformation at a societal level can impact the political landscape. As the researchers note, "it might not be enough to ask people to think more critically about political views. Instead, we might look to reduce the effects of online echo chambers and facilitate greater levels of communication between those with opposing political outlooks."

While social media has the potential to divide, we must not forget that it also has the potential to expose people to ideologically diverse viewpoints.

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* I always wonder who that "science" person is who keeps saying cool stuff I want to hear.