Study finds conservatives with a need for chaos are more likely to share fake news

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New research provides evidence that a lack of conscientiousness and a desire to cause chaos both play an important role in the spread of misinformation online. The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, offer “a more nuanced account” of the relationship between political conservatism and the tendency to share fake news on social media.

“We became interested in this topic after reading many fake news papers that all found that more conservative political ideology (or Republican partisan identification) was associated with sharing more fake news,” said study author M. Asher Lawson (@asherjdm), a PhD candidate at Duke University in Management & Organizations.

“This seemed in line with my own experiences on social media, but felt like an incomplete picture. Surely, all conservatives don’t share fake news at a higher rate? Moreover, if you think about classic conservative figures like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, it seems like they would be very against the fake news nightmarescape that we see today. So, that got us thinking, which kind of conservatives are likely to be driving this effect?”

The researchers conducted a series of six studies with 4,642 U.S. participants in total to examine the relationship between personality characteristics and the tendency to spread misinformation. The participants were shown real and fake news headlines and asked how likely they were to share them on social media. The headlines, which were presented in random order, included a mix of conservative-leaning, liberal-leaning, and neutral news stories.

Both liberal and conservative participants displayed a reduced tendency to share fake news that was discordant with their views. In other words, liberals were less willing to share conservative-leaning fake news and conservatives were less willing to share liberal-leaning fake news.

In line with previous studies, the researchers found that politically conservative participants were more inclined towards sharing fake news stories compared to their liberal counterparts. But this appeared to be mostly driven by conscientiousness, a personality trait characterized by orderliness, self-discipline, and impulse control.

Low conscientiousness conservatives were particularly likely to share fake news. Among those with high levels of conscientiousness, however, there was no significant difference between liberals and conservatives.

The researchers also found evidence that the indiscriminate desire to cause chaos was associated with sharing fake news, and low conscientiousness conservatives tended to have a greater desire to cause chaos compared to high conscientiousness conservatives and liberals.

This was true regardless of whether the news articles were about COVID-19, the 2016 presidential election, or politically neutral topics. In addition, other factors such as support for Trump, trust in the media, and economic conservatism were not as strongly tied to the tendency to share fake news.

“I’d say the main thing to take away is that making generalizations about any group – conservatives and Republicans included – is going to miss a lot of nuance and be inaccurate,” Lawson told PsyPost. “We found consistently that a subset of conservatives – those who are low in conscientiousness and driven by a desire to cause chaos – explained the majority of the sharing of fake news. High conscientiousness conservatives weren’t to blame for this behavior in our studies. In the media you’ll often see people talk about misinformation as a problem driven by conservatives, without any further qualification. It’s not all of them!”

The researchers also examined how people changed their sharing behavior in response to fact-checker warnings. In one study, the participants were informed whether the new stories they were willing to share had been disputed by fact-checkers and were then asked if they would still like to share them. Another study attached “fake” or “real” tags to the stories.

Although both interventions reduced the willingness to share fake news to some degree, it was less effective among low conscientiousness conservatives.

“People who are sharing fake news aren’t easily deterred by fact-checkers,” Lawson said. “In our data, we found prompting people that the stories they were sharing or thinking about sharing were false had little impact on their desire to share them. This is pretty concerning, as the gold-standard for fake news interventions (as we’ve seen with disputed messages on Facebook) has relied on the efficacy of such prompts.”

As far as potential caveats, Lawson noted that the studies were conducted in laboratory settings. “This allows us to control for different features of the news and social environment that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. However, it could be the case that in some social situations, people feel pressured to share fake news in a way that even conscientiousness can’t mitigate,” he explained.

“I think a lot more research is required on how people’s social environments exert pressure on their decisions about sharing and promoting conspiracy theories and other falsehoods,” Lawson added. “Misinformation is such a multidimensional problem that it’s hard to integrate all of the relevant angles at once. I’d say that looking at properties of people’s social groups and communities in conjunction with studying the effects of personality and other individual level variables is a key next step to finding a holistic approach to tackling fake news.”

The study, “Of pandemics, politics, and personality: The role of conscientiousness and political ideology in the sharing of fake news“, was authored by M. Asher Lawson and Hemant Kakkar.