By Emma Young
Why do people share fake news? All kinds of studies have looked into what encourages it, and which personal attributes play a role. As the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General point out, multiple studies have found that political conservatives are relatively more likely to disseminate false news than those on the political left. However, their new work finds that this is an over-simplification — that the link is “largely driven” by conservatives who are also low in conscientiousness. This is an important finding for a few reasons. On the upside, it’s a far less politically polarising message. On the downside, this group does not seem to be receptive to the main identified way of stopping fake news from spreading.
Asher Lawson and Hemant Kakkar at Duke University ran eight online studies on a total of 4,642 US-based participants. In the first, the participants were given 12 reputable and 12 fake news COVID-19 stories from websites. Participants who identified as conservative were, as expected, more likely to say that they would share fake stories. However, further analysis revealed that this was true for conservatives who were low in conscientiousness, but not for those who were high in conscientiousness (highly conscientious people are those who are more diligent and better at controlling impulses). A second study found the same pattern of results for political stories unrelated to Covid-19.
Earlier research has found that giving guidance on the likely veracity of a news article helps to stop the spread of fake news. Indeed, this has been highlighted as a potentially important way to counter its spread. So, would adding fact-checker tags, indicating that the content had been verified or was disputed, reduce the sharing of fake news by low conscientious conservatives? A third study found that it did not. The low conscientious conservatives were more likely to share fake news that aligned with, and so furthered, their own interests. It didn’t seem to matter whether they believed it to be true or not.
This conclusion was supported by the results of an even stronger intervention. When participants in a fresh study indicated they would share a fake news story, they were given an explicit warning that the content was probably false, and asked if they would still like to share. While conservatives were overall less likely than liberals to change their mind, this was especially true for low conscientiousness conservatives.
Based on the results of earlier work, the pair wondered whether this group might have a stronger “need for chaos” — a greater desire for anarchy — and that this might drive the effect. They ran yet further studies to investigate, and concluded that this does indeed seem to be the case. Other personality traits, level of trust in the mainstream media, attitudes towards Covid-19, age, gender and time spent on social media were all taken into account in their analyses.
Overall, when it came to the spreading of fake news, “disparities in sharing behaviour were nearly exclusively driven by low conscientiousness respondents”, with an “indiscriminate desire for chaos”, the pair writes. “To curtail the spread of misinformation, policymakers should focus on low conscientious conservatives.”
As low conscientious conservatives don’t seem to care whether a story that aligns with their beliefs and interests is true or not, it could be that interventions will need to target conscientiousness itself, rather than simply explaining that a story is fake, the pair writes. How to go about that is another matter entirely. But given the disastrous effects of the spreading of fake news on everything from public health to voter decisions, it’s surely vital that efforts are made to find out.