New findings published in PLOS One suggest that even people who are highly concerned about fake news are susceptible to sharing it. Among a sample of individuals who were subscribed to a COVID-19-related fact-checking newsletter, about 30% had shared debunked information at least five times in the past 3 months.
The widespread circulation of misinformation or “fake news” related to COVID-19 continues to cause concern among health officials around the world. Misinformation about the virus can cause citizens to question the efficacy of public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, such as mask-wearing and COVID-19 vaccines.
Researchers Lauren L. Saling and her team wanted to explore the psychological factors that make people susceptible to sharing misinformation while focusing on a sample of individuals who should be less willing to share such content. Specifically, the researchers explored the prevalence of misinformation sharing and the motivations for sharing misinformation among a sample of people subscribed to a fact-checking newsletter.
“All of the authors of this research are members of RMIT FactLab, which is the research arm of a fact checking body (RMIT ABC Fact Check — a joint initiative between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and RMIT University),” explained Saling.
“The broad research aims of RMIT FactLab are as follows: i. to establish which people or groups are particularly susceptible to fake news and misinformation and inclined to share fake news and misinformation, ii. to determine the platforms on which fake news and misinformation are shared, iii. to determine the kinds of information that are more likely to be shared, and iv. to determine the optimal way to present debunked information to increase its efficacy in combatting misinformation and fake news.”
Saling and her colleagues recruited 1,397 Australians who were subscribed to a newsletter created by a fact-checking organization in Australia. The newsletter, called CoronaCheck, publishes weekly content that debunks misinformation related to COVID-19. The newsletter subscribers completed an online questionnaire where they answered questions about their engagement with the newsletter, engagement with fake news, attitudes toward COVID-19, belief in science, and conspiracy thinking.
“In this study, we deliberately included only subscribers to CoronaCheck, a weekly fact checking newsletter produced by RMIT ABC Fact Check presenting fact checked information predominantly around COVID-19,” Saling explained. “Given that such individuals are clearly concerned about fake news and misinformation and actively seek debunked information, it would seem unlikely that they would be inclined to share misinformation.”
Compared to general samples, the CoronaCheck subscribers had a higher belief in science and a lower conspiracy mentality. Overall, the respondents were highly concerned about fake news, perceived expert information about COVID-19 to be trustworthy, and felt they were good at discriminating between fake news and genuine news. Around 72% said they read the fact-checking newsletter every time they received it.
Interestingly, despite being highly concerned with fake news and having subscribed to a fact-checking newsletter, many participants were guilty of sharing misinformation. About 30% indicated that they had shared debunked information at least five times in the past 3 months. Similarly, 31% said they had shared information that they later found out to be false, and 24% said they had shared possible misinformation (information they did not know to be true or untrue).
“The sharing of misinformation is done even by people who are aware of fake news and misinformation and concerned about information veracity,” Saling told PsyPost. “Sharing of misinformation and fake news is very problematic as even if it is shared in good faith, sharing it exposes others to the information which can engender false beliefs. Once beliefs are established, they are very hard to shift.”
The most common reasons for sharing misinformation were to get a second opinion on whether or not a claim was true (38%) and because it seemed interesting (37%). Another 12% said they shared misinformation for entertainment purposes.
The study’s authors emphasize that sharing misinformation, even if one’s intentions are positive, still contributes to the circulation of false information. Even if a person shares a fake news article to point out inaccuracies or to discredit it, these efforts are lost once it gets re-shared. The false information then has the potential to reach many new readers who may then develop inaccurate beliefs.
“It is puzzling that sharing of possible misinformation persists in a cohort who are both attuned to and concerned about misinformation and who actively seek the debunking of misinformation. Sharing misinformation, even when it is not done to deceive, increases the chances that it will promote faulty beliefs in others,” Saling and her team say.
Although fact-checking newsletters likely increase people’s vigilance to fake news, it appears they do not necessarily keep people from spreading misinformation. The authors say that, instead, a more explicit intervention may be needed.
“The next studies in our research program involve using experience sampling methodology to ask people to report at multiple time points what information they are sharing, motivations for sharing and platforms on which information is shared, and using eye tracking to investigate how people interact with information in order to determine the optimal way to present debunked information to increase its efficacy,” Saling said.
The study, “No one is immune to misinformation: An investigation of misinformation sharing by subscribers to a fact-checking newsletter”, was authored by Lauren L. Saling, Devi Mallal, Falk Scholer, Russell Skelton, and Damiano Spina.