In recent years, there has been a lot of talk of “fake news,” or misinformation spread like wildfire through social media, but why is that such a large concern? A study in New Media & Society suggests that people feel threatened by misinformation because they believe other people are more vulnerable to believing it than they are.
Misinformation has been a hot topic in recent years, especially regarding previous presidencies and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people believe that the internet and popular media have allowed fake information to thrive and spread, leading to many people having strong beliefs in falsehoods. Though this does happen, there is a degree of alarmism and over-exaggeration surrounding misinformation.
This alarmism has led to negative outcomes, such as people being very skeptical of both fake and real news and decreased sharing of reliable news sources. Though misinformation as a concern has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the underlying reasons that people are concerned about misinformation have been understudied, which this article seeks to address.
Study authors Sacha Altay and Alberto Acerbi administered two surveys in both the United States and United Kingdom to better understand what people believe the danger of misinformation is. Survey 1 utilized 300 participants from the United Kingdom and 302 participants from the United States. Both samples were gender balanced and recruited through the online platform Prolific.
Participants were asked to report their age, gender, level of education and then completed 16 questions that consisted of five subscales: perceived danger of misinformation, attitudes toward new technologies, belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes, belief we live in a dangerous world, and confidence in their abilities, friends’ and family’s abilities, and people’s abilities to spot misinformation.
Survey 2 utilized 300 participants from the United Kingdom and 299 participants from the United States, all recruited via Prolific. Both samples were gender balanced. Participants reported their age, gender, level of education, answered three questions on the danger of misinformation, and then rated how likely they would be to like and share four alarmist headlines on misinformation.
Results from survey 1 showed that the U.K. and U.S. samples reported differing factors were associated with believing that misinformation is dangerous. In the United Kingdom, negative attitudes toward new technologies, belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes, belief we live in a dangerous world, perceived difficulty to spot misinformation, and the third-party effect were all related to perceived danger of misinformation.
In the United States sample, all of the same variables were significant except for negative attitudes toward new technologies and belief that we live in a dangerous world. Participants who showed strong third person effects, or beliefs that other people were more susceptible to misinformation than they themselves are, were increasingly concerned about misinformation, which was the strongest effect seen in survey 1 for both countries.
Results from survey 2 showed that higher perceived danger of misinformation was associated with a greater likelihood of liking and sharing alarmist headlines in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
This study took important steps into understanding the perceived danger of misinformation and what contributes to it. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that willingness to share and like alarmist headlines may not generalize to actual behavior. Additionally, there could be other important factors linked to perceiving danger of misinformation that were not measured, such as political affiliation.
“The finding that worries about misinformation tap into our tendency to view other people as gullible could help address some of their negative effects,” the researchers concluded. “For instance, while it is important to raise awareness about misinformation, it may also be necessary to communicate to the public the scientific evidence that misinformation is less widespread than they think and that its effects are more nuanced than often assumed.”
The study, “People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are gullible“, was published February 17, 2023.