A new experimental study found that heightened anxiety makes people more prone to believe in various claims they are exposed to and to share them on social media. This was especially true for Republicans and did not depend on the accuracy or truthfulness of the claim. The study was published in New Media & Society.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a crisis of misinformation related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and strategies to mitigate its spread. Some of the misleading claims became very widespread after they were endorsed by prominent political leaders. For example, the claim made by the former U.S. President Donald Trump that hydroxychloroquine was a promising cure for COVID-19 led to a strong increase in demand for this substance worldwide. The increase persisted in spite of the fact that scientific studies that formed the basis for this claim were retracted due to serious methodological flaws.
In the United States, support for a political party influences how people form beliefs about political and scientific topics, including risks to public health. Situations where supporters of opposing political parties hold radically different views about certain topics, i.e., where their views are polarized, are a common occurrence.
In this context, researchers speak about “partisan motivated reasoning,” a tendency for people to defend their political identities and beliefs by accepting or ignoring pieces of information based on how they relate to their beliefs. Due to this, people with opposing political views may be exposed to the same piece of information, but interpret it in differing ways that favor their political beliefs. Oftentimes, this includes sticking to and spreading misinformation.
Study author Isabelle Freiling and her colleagues wanted to explore how acceptance of a political ideology, support for a U.S. political party, and anxiety shape one’s proneness to believe and willingness to share claims found in the media. Their expectation was that people will be more prone to believe in and share information coming from sources that are in line with their political ideology.
The more extreme their political views, the more pronounced these effects were expected to be. The researchers also expected Republicans to be more prone to sharing COVID-19 related misinformation and that people will be more likely to believe in claims found in the media when they feel more anxious.
“We wanted to examine how people make sense of different kinds of information,” explained Freiling, an assistant professor at the University of Utah. “Research on misinformation usually looks at whether people believe or are willing to share misinformation, but without also looking at other types of information, such as accurate information or even fact-checks, we cannot compare their reactions to misinformation to anything else.
“That is why we included besides posts that contain misinformation also posts containing accurate information and fact-checks. Given that the COVID-19 information environment was politicized since almost the beginning, and COVID-19 in itself being a risky and–at the time we conducted our study–also an extremely uncertain issue, we were specifically interested in the role of partisanship and anxiety in how people processed posts about COVID-19.”
They embedded their experimental procedure in an online survey that was completed by 719 MTurk workers between April and May 2020. Participants were first asked a battery of questions that included their political ideology and partisanship. They were than divided randomly into two groups. One was asked to write for 2 minutes about a situation that made them extremely anxious, while the other was tasked to write about a situation that made them relaxed. The purpose of this was induce a feeling of anxiety in the first group and of relaxation in the other group.
After this, each of these two groups was again randomly divided into two groups. One was shown a series of six Facebook posts allegedly shared by Fox News (a media outlet leaning to the political right) and the posts shown to the other group were allegedly from MSNBC (a left-leaning media outlet). Two of those posts were accurate, two contained misinformation and two contained corrective information (information fact-checking certain news reports).
Participants reported their level of belief in statements shown (“To the best of your knowledge, is the claim in the above post true or false?”), willingness to share it (“If you were to see the above on social media, how likely would you be to share it?”), partisanship (“Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or what?”), extremity of ideology, and anxiety. The researchers recorded whether the news source (Fox or MSNBC) was aligned with participants’ reported ideology.
Results showed that participants believed more in corrective information when they were published by a news source aligned with their ideology. This was not the case for either misinformation or accurate information. Participants who identified as Republicans more strongly were more prone to believe misinformation, but not accurate information or corrective information. Participants strongly identifying as Republicans were more willing to share all types of information.
Ideologically extreme Republicans believed accurate posts less than ideologically extreme Democrats. However, ideologically centrist or non-committed Republicans tended to believe accurate posts more than ideologically centrist or non-committed Democrats.
Anxiety increased the levels of belief in all three kinds of claims included in the study and also increased the willingness to share them. Beliefs in claims were also the strongest in Republicans who reported high anxiety. High-anxiety Republicans had the greatest willingness to share all types of posts.
“One of the main takeaways of our study is that Republicans were not only more open to believing and sharing misinformation about COVID-19, but also to accurate information and fact-checks. Basically, we found that Republicans are more open to all kinds of information,” Freiling told PsyPost.
“Besides this, anxiety played a big role in whether people believed the posts we showed them and whether they were willing to share those posts: It also made people more open to all kinds of information. Taking this all together, our study reinforces the idea of motivated reasoning as believing and sharing information of any kind was strongly related to motivational influences of partisanship and emotions.”
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of factors shaping how individuals process news. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Namely, the study completely depended on self-reports. There might be differences between how one reports planning to act and how one acts in real life.
The study, “Believing and sharing misinformation, fact-checks, and accurate information on social media: The role of anxiety during COVID-19”, was authored by Isabelle Freiling, Nicole M Krause, Dietram A Scheufele, and Dominique Brossard.