Political bias might be more important in predicting acceptance of fake news than a conspiratorial mindset, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychology.
“We have been astonished to see how recently, and especially with the advent of social media, the influence of fake news on political decisions has intensified. Even important political events, such as an election, can be influenced by fake news. While the literature mainly emphasized the susceptibility of people with conservative attitudes, we were curious about how universal a phenomenon this could be,” said study author Laura Faragó, a PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University.
In the study, 1,012 Hungarian participants who ranged in age from 17 to 77 were asked to read headlines and then rate the probability that the news was written by an independent journalist. The headlines included pro-government fake news, anti-government fake news, non-political fake news, and real non-political news.
The researchers found that partisanship was an important predictor of belief in the fake news headlines.
Supporters of the current Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, were more likely to rate the pro-government fake news as coming from an independent source and were more likely to believe that the pro-government fake news was real. But Orbán supporters were less likely to view the anti-government fake news as real.
Opponents of Orbán’s government, on the other hand, were more likely to rate the anti-government fake news as coming from an independent source and were more likely to believe that the anti-government fake news was real, but were more skeptical of the pro-government fake news.
Conspiracy mentality, a measure of one’s propensity to endorse conspiracy theories, was only weakly linked to belief in anti-government fake news.
“Despite fake news and conspiracy theories often being mentioned interchangeably, our research revealed that they do not necessarily overlap. We focused on wish-fulfilling political fake news, which was unrelated to the general mentality to believe in conspiracy theories. Therefore, our research suggests that pipedream fake news is processed like any other information,” Faragó explained.
The researchers replicated these findings in a second study of 382 Hungarian university students, which included a larger number of headlines.
“The most important message from our study is that everyone can fall prey to fake information,” Faragó told PsyPost.
“We falsely think that we are immune to fake news and expect that only gullible people can be deceived. However, if we encounter fake news that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs and ideologies, we are more likely to believe in it, and reject the inconsistent information.”
“The perception of the source is also important in the evaluation process: if the news is consistent with our beliefs, we more likely think that the news was written by an independent journalist, but if the news contradicts our viewpoint, we assume that it is biased and part of political propaganda,” Faragó added.
“When we read news, the satisfaction with the economic situation is also an important factor: if we are satisfied with the economy and the political management, we will trust pro-government news more, even if it is fake, and regard opposition news as political propaganda.”
“Therefore, we should read news that come from our own side even more critically,” Faragó said.
The study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“We identified the importance of partisanship (supporting or opposing a political party) in the acceptance of fake news. However, other scholars argue that the key to understand this phenomenon lies in critical thinking, which is indeed important in overcoming fake news,” Faragó explained.
“In our next research project, we aim to test both partisanship and critical thinking, and compare which has a stronger effect on differentiating fake news from real ones.”
The study, “We Only Believe in News That We Doctored Ourselves: The Connection Between Partisanship and Political Fake News“, was authored by Laura Faragó, Anna Kende, and Péter Krekó.