New research provides evidence that the news sources people consider to be “fake news” are the ones that conflict with their pre-existing political beliefs. The study, published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, found that news sources considered by conservatives to provide real news were considered by liberals to be sources of fake news and propaganda, and vice versa.
“My colleague and I noted an explosion in popularity of the term ‘fake news’ around the time of the 2016 US Presidential election,” said study author Robert B. Michael, who co-authored the research with Brooke O. Breaux. Both are assistant professors of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“We began wondering how people interpret that term: Who and what do people believe is ‘fake news’ and why? Is ‘fake news’ simply another way of saying ‘propaganda?’ Are there certain characteristics — like a person’s political affiliation — that can predict which specific sources of information are labeled ‘fake news?’ If so, then there might be alarming consequences for people’s interpretations of the news.”
The researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to recruit 700 American participants for three separate but similar studies, which were conducted in March 2017, April 2018, and August 2020. Michael and Breaux found there was a link between political affiliation and whether a particular new sources was considered as a purveyor of “fake news.”
“What we believe constitutes ‘fake news’ varies from person to person, as expected,” the researchers told PsyPost. “But importantly, we seem to be prone to a bias in belief about where fake news comes from.”
“Specifically, news sources considered ‘real’ by one side of the political spectrum are often considered ‘fake’ by the other — and vice versa. This bias is likely due to our motivation to see consistency and truth in sources that fit our political views. It does not seem to reflect a difference in our familiarity with various news sources, nor our ability to think critically.”
In the studies, participants were shown a list of 42 news outlets and asked to individually rate the extent to which they believed each was a source of real news, fake news, and propaganda.
As expected, fake news and propaganda were highly correlated. But, based on an analysis of written responses, conservatives tended to see a larger overlap between fake news and propaganda, while liberals believed there was more of a distinction between the two concepts.
The researcher also found that conservative participants tended to believe that the 42 news outlets in general provided more fake news and more propaganda compared to their liberal counterparts. While conservatives viewed the news outlets as providing less real news than liberals in 2017, this difference disappeared in 2018 and the relationship was reversed in 2020.
“The relationship between political affiliation and beliefs about which sources are ‘fake’ or ‘real’ seems to be shifting over time — but it’s not clear where exactly this relationship is headed,” Michael explained.
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats. “We don’t know to what extent this bias affects people’s interpretations of actual news information (or misinformation), when reported from different sources,” Michael said. “We also don’t know which political ‘camp’ (left or right) is more correct in their beliefs about which sources constitute fake news.”
The study, “The relationship between political affiliation and beliefs about sources of ‘fake news’“, was published February 12, 2021.