Why are some more Vulnerable to Fake News

For some reason some people appear to be more susceptible to not only absorbing Fake News, but when confronted with evidence that corrects the misinformation, the Fake News tends to stick a bit.

Study: Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct

A recent study entitled “‘Fake news’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions” explored the topic as follows.

They got 390 participants to take part and randomly assigned them to a control group and an experimental group.

In the experimental group, participants were presented with a picture and description of a young women, named Nathalie. In this description, general information about Nathalie was provided, such as that she is married and works as a nurse in a hospital. At the end of the description, it reads that

‘Nathalie was arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital; she has been stealing drugs for 2 years and selling them on the street in order to buy designer clothes’.

After completing three control questions, participants were asked to evaluate Nathalie on several dimensions, and to complete a some further questions that measured their own cognitive ability.

Next, participants saw an explicit message on their screen stating that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was not true.

Subsequently, participants were again presented with the picture and description of Nathalie, showing exactly the same information as before, but with the incorrect piece of information in a strikethrough typography. Then participants were asked to evaluate Nathalie again, knowing that she was not arrested and did not steal and sell drugs.

In essence, some details are presented and they need to express an opinion about Nathalie – To paraphrase that, “Oh wait, that was ‘Fake News’, so knowing that, what is your opinion of Nathalie now?”

What Happened?

Well, this is where it gets interesting.

As you would expect, nobody had a good opinion of Nathalie the greedy drug pusher, (well duh!), but what happened when the false information was corrected is interesting. Again rather obviously attitudes shifted right across the scale in a positive direction and more or less aligned with the control group who were not presented with the negative information. What however is interesting is that the cognitive ability of the various individuals did align with a measured difference.

Those with higher levels of cognitive ability adjusted their evaluation significantly more compared to individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability.

But the news was fake, and clearly identified as fake, and yet for some reason the very existence of the fake information still influenced some to feel less positive regarding Nathalie.

The following chart illustrates what they measured …

What exactly have they measured?

Perhaps some people are more open minded than others, or perhaps some lean towards authoritarianism and so that is what is actually being measured.

Well no, because they did also consider all of that, and did specifically measure those attributes and so controlled for them. It was specifically cognitive ability that aligned with this marked difference.

Individuals with lower (versus higher) levels of cognitive ability were less responsive to the corrective new information, and the initial exposure to the incorrect information had a persevering influence on their attitudes. Specifically, when individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability learnt that their attitudes towards a target person were partly based on negative information that was incorrect, they did adjust their evaluation about the target person, but to a lesser degree than individuals with higher levels of cognitive ability.

Importantly, the adjusted attitudes of individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability were still more negative compared to the evaluations of their counterparts, people with the same cognitive ability who were never exposed to the incorrect negative information.

So what?

Once you begin to understand what is going on and how negative false information can naturally stick for some, you can then explore ways of countering that and work out what strategies are effective in overcoming such obstacles.

This truly does matter because we are clearly living in an age where false information circulates on a scale never seen before and that leads to rather a lot of people failing to overcome the challenge even after the false information has been corrected.

As an example of the scale of the false information flow, BuzzFeed conducted a news analysis and demonstrated that fake news stories that circulated on Facebook greatly outperformed real news during the 2016 election …

Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump

Fake News is a real threat even after it is corrected.

This is not simply because it circulates as truth, persists, and has a liar-in-chief sitting on the oval office to both propagate it and pronounce benediction upon it, but also because it works and has a measurable impact upon many even after being robustly debunked.

“The aim of using fake news as propaganda is to make people think and behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise—for example, hold a view that is contradicted by overwhelming scientific consensus. When this nefarious aim is achieved, citizens no longer have the ability to act in their own self-interest. In the logic of democracy, this isn’t just bad for that citizen—it’s bad for society.” –  David Z. Hambrick and Madeline Marquardt

Further Reading

Scientific American – Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News.

In the above article they mull over why it might be like this and also offer some good guidance that you can use to help protect yourself…

A recommendation that follows from research on the illusion of truth effect is to serve as your own fact checker. If you are convinced that some claim is true, ask yourself why. Is it because you have credible evidence that the claim is true, or is it just because you’ve encountered the claim over and over? Also ask yourself if you know of any evidence that refutes the claim. (You just might be surprised to find that you do.)

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