Anyone can fall for 'fake news,' conspiracy theories: The psychology of misinformation

USA Today/January 14, 2021

By Alia E. Dastagir

Before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol last week, the president gave a speech to his aggrieved supporters rife with lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

"The media is the biggest problem we have as far as I’m concerned, single biggest problem, the fake news," Trump told his supporters. "We won this election, and we won it by a landslide."

Trump didn't win the election. Election officials and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security said the presidential election in November was fair, and on Thursday Congress certified Joe Biden as president elect. But Trump's speech and the chaos and violence it incited show the dangerous cultural, political and human consequences of false information. Experts say while certain factors may make someone more likely to believe false information, any of us are vulnerable.

"We are all susceptible," said Dolores Albarracin, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies attitudes, communication and behavior. "Because we cannot physically verify many of our beliefs – is the earth round? – we need to trust sources and documentation. If we trust trustworthy sources, we are generally safe, although all sources are fallible. If we trust untrustworthy ones, we are in danger."

A 2019 Ipsos survey of online users found 86% admit to falling for "fake news" at least once in their lifetime, and a 2014 study found in any given year roughly half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

"I don't think we fully understand the consequences of passing along bad information," said Al Tompkins, an expert at the Poynter Institute who teaches media literacy to senior citizens. "We have a personal, moral, ethical and civic responsibility to do basic amounts of research to know whether or not something that we're passing along is true."

What 'fake news' is and isn't

Trump has endeavored to make "fake news" synonymous with the mainstream media. But conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation are more often found on social media, anonymous message boards and fringe websites that deceptively disseminate false or misleading content under the guise of legitimate news.

Many Americans say the spread of made-up news is causing significant harm, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

"There is a myriad of consequences: From cynicism of government, the media, and science, to behaviors that harm individuals and others ... to large scale damage to public property, to insurrection," Albarracin said.

Albarracin said there is an important distinction between misinformation and conspiracy theories. Misinformation, she said, states something inaccurate. That the 2020 election was rigged is inaccurate. However, a conspiracy theory like QAnon is more elaborate and discredits any information that could prove that theory untrue, and therefore makes it much more difficult to correct.

The danger of always wanting to be right
Human beings want to be right, and when they search for information they do it with the intent of confirming what they already believe. It's called “confirmation bias."

"It's always easier to take in information that you already believe," Tompkins said. "It's much more difficult and requires a whole different level of intellectual and emotional maturity to take in information that is not advantageous to you, that's not something you currently believe."

When someone feels the need to always be right, it can also shut down productive conversation and healthy debate.

"One way to be right is just to be louder," Tompkins said. "And there is an opposite and equal reaction to that that is very harmful to a democracy, and that is that other people just withdraw from the conversation. ... When they check out, then the forceful voice becomes the controlling voice."

Are some people easier targets?
People who primarily get their news from social media are at increased risk. A Pew report published in July shows Americans who rely primarily on social media for news are more likely to be exposed to conspiracy theories and "tend to know less about the 2020 election, less about the coronavirus pandemic, and less about political news in general than people who rely on news websites, cable or network TV, radio, and print."

People with a sharper understanding of the news media are less likely to believe conspiracy theories, according to the 2017 study, “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement."

"Individuals with higher levels of literacy are better-positioned to navigate the endless flow of media messages and to become more engaged, empowered and critical news consumers," the authors wrote.

There are also likely idiosyncratic motivational factors that may lead people to engage with misinformation, Pennycook said. Wanting to find an explanation for your child being sick, for example. Fear and anxiety can contribute to susceptibility.

How to avoid 'fake news'
Tompkins said all of us are responsible for how we consume and share information. Sometimes the way we talk about misinformation "presupposes that [people aren't] capable of protecting themselves, and I don't think that's the way to look at it," he said.

Fake news:What it is and how to spot it

All of us have an obligation to establish the accuracy of a piece of information before passing it along. Tompkins said it's important to ask:

  • What do I know?
  • What do I need to know?
  • How do I know what I know?
  • And is there any other way to look at that?

"Have you done even the minimal amount of work to see if there's another way of seeing it?" he asked.

How to help someone when you see them falling for misinformation

When engaging with someone who believes a piece of information that's unsupported by facts, demonstrate a willingness to listen. Trying to tell someone what to believe is never going to work, but you can offer to help someone explore their ideas.

Pennycook said you can also refer to the "Debunking Handbook," developed by dozens of academics and which includes tips for correcting misinformation, including stating the truth first in a clear and pithy way, explaining how the myth misleads and reinforcing the fact.

Educating people about facts and methods of verification has been shown to work, as has characterizing theories as illogical. But this, Albarracin said, has to occur ahead of someone subscribing to a conspiracy theory, in what is referred to as "prebunking."

"What works best is to prevent the formation of these beliefs," she said. "It is easy to introduce a belief but much harder to change it."

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