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Groupthink, fatigue and divilment: Why do people share fake news?

Misinformation has never been more widely shared in Ireland than during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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MISINFORMATION HAS NEVER been more talked about in Ireland than during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The spread of fake news never really took hold in Ireland in the same way it did in many other countries, but more false information has been shared in Ireland in recent months than ever before.

Some people have used the pandemic, and people’s valid concerns and fears, to deliberately create false information – often dubbed disinformation – in a bid to dupe others or see how far the rumour goes.

Most people who share incorrect information do so unwittingly and without any malicious intent. But what makes some people more likely than others to share, and believe, false stories? And why do people create them in the first place?

In the latest article in our series on misinformation, TheJournal.ie explores why misinformation is shared and how false memories can be created by a person who encounters fake news. 

Pádraig Walsh, a behavioral psychologist, said many factors could be at play when a person, knowingly or unknowingly, shares misinformation.

Walsh told TheJournal.ie that groupthink often plays a major role.

He explained that when people view information online, they experience different biases – in particular cognitive bias – where individuals create their own subjective reality, and confirmation bias – a tendency to seek out and favour information that confirms their beliefs.

Much of this is linked to the echo chambers we create for ourselves online – by primarily engaging with people who have similar beliefs and opinions to ourselves, the majority of what we view on social media tends to align with and reinforce the views we already have.

Walsh compared the echo chambers people experience on social media to the ones we create on streaming platforms.

“If I’m on Netflix or on Spotify, but I’m struggling to find other programmes or music, the algorithms that are created will only feed me stuff that I’ve already shown an interest in. And the same thing happens with Facebook and Instagram – I’ll only get the kind of liberal views that me and my peer group support so that’s the echo chamber that is created.

“So everything that I see confirms my beliefs already. So, [the algorithm] suggests content that fits into our worldview and feeds into confirmation bias.”

Walsh said most people don’t share misinformation out of malicious intent, instead being motivated by intentions they view as good – they want to let people know something important, they want to be helpful, they want to be part of the conversation.

He explained that many people try to evaluate their own beliefs by comparing them to those held by others.

“Our self image is framed by the feedback that we get from others. So for instance, if I am trying to ascertain if I’m rich or not what I’ll do is I’ll look at the neighbours beside me and I’ll see whether they have things that are better or not.

“If I’m trying to figure out if I’m running a good 5k race, rather than just running against myself, I’ll compare myself to others, to know if I’m fast or slow. And the same thing applies to our beliefs and our attitudes.

“So, if I believe that I am a concerned citizen and I want to evaluate that belief, I might share something that says schools are going to be closed for the next few weeks, or shops are running out of food, for example.

“I want to project that self-image, and the feedback that I get from others is going to confirm that for me. So that self-image is then framed by others. So I might see myself as a concerned citizen so I share information that might be relevant.

“And then what happens is, other people within my social group will reinforce that because they might share similar beliefs and attitudes, and we have this echo chamber created by the algorithm.”

‘I can’t believe they’re doing that’

Walsh said people’s beliefs are reinforced, and they are more likely to share similar information on social media in the future, if others reply to their posts saying things like ‘Thanks for sharing that’, ‘That’s really helpful to know’, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing that’.

“If people in your peer group are responding in a positive way they’re reinforcing this, and it’s more likely that you will share that type of information or something related to that theme in the future because that’s getting you more likes or more interaction.”

shutterstock_1398622295 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Lenscap Photography

He said people are also regularly influenced by negativity bias – humans are more inclined to focus on bad news or a post containing negative information or misinformation.

“If we read the news, that negativity bias comes out because our attention will be drawn toward the information that is more negative or is more shocking or might have bigger implications for us, regardless of the accuracy or the reliability of that information.”

Walsh explained that this has an evolutionary context. For as long as humans have existed, they have been “predisposed to pay more attention to those things that might be perceived as a threat” in order to project themselves.

He said this is part of the reason that negative posts, such as ones incorrectly stating the army will start to patrol the streets or that shops are going to run out of food, are so widely shared.

“We are more hyper alert to any of this negative ‘news’ because it threatens our survival,” he explained.

People are fatigued

Walsh said another reason misinformation about Covid-19 in particular took off in Ireland was because of fatigue. People are tired, worried and just trying to get by.

“We’re more likely to share this stuff when we’re tired, when we’re fatigued.”

He added that, because of this same tiredness, people are also “less likely to actually open the article [they are sharing], never mind read it, never mind fact-check it”.

Walsh noted that during the pandemic, on top of this fatigue, many people have been checking their phones more often.

“We’re very tired, we’re checking our phones and checking social media, so this is primed for people to act on emotional feelings rather than rational deduction,” he noted.

Determining why people create fake news, Walsh said, is less clear cut. Some people want to take credit for it, but most seem happy to “sow the seed and then take a step back and just watch what happens”.

original Source: Facebook

In terms of the messages incorrectly claiming the Defence Forces would be patrolling the streets as the country went into lockdown, which were widely shared on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook at the start of the pandemic, Walsh said “it didn’t seem like any kind of coordinated or well thought-out strategy”.

“It just seems like somebody, individually, creating something just to create a bit of divilment rather than it being more than that.”

Whatever the intention, he added that if something along those lines is widely shared and believed, the consequences can be “drastic” on some people’s mental health in terms of worry and anxiety. 

Creating false memories

Ciara Greene, an associate professor at UCD’s School of Psychology, agrees that people who are fatigued are more likely to believe misinformation and even create false memories about it.

Greene said the “energy budget” in people’s brains may already be at full capacity – because they’re stressed or anxious about Covid-19, for example – when they encounter fake news, making them more susceptible to believe it.

“If your resources are all used up by being anxious, by being worried, by being absolutely overloaded by all of this kind of information, and it’s just constant, then you might not really have those cognitive abilities available to say, ‘Well on this particular story I’m going to stop and I’m going to think and I’m going to look and see whether this holds water and is there any evidence presented for it’,” she explained.

“That kind of cognitive overload – having so much of this stuff coming at you – can just make you go with your gut intuition, rather than stopping and reasoning. Sometimes, of course, our intuition is right, but sometimes it’s not and that’s what trips us up.”

Greene and her colleagues at UCD and UCC recently carried out an online study on fake news, in collaboration with TheJournal.ie. About 4,500 people took part and the answers provided by almost 3,800 people were analysed.

The outstanding participants were removed from the final analysis as they may have admitted to looking up some of the information online, or failed to tick boxes to prove they were paying attention throughout the survey.

More women that men took part in the survey; the gender breakdown was as follows: 2,487 (66.4%) women, 1,252 (33.4%) men and seven people (0.2%) who identified as other.

The mean age was 46, and overall age range from 18 to 101 years. Each person who took part in the study was shown four true news stories relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, and four fake stories.

These false stories were created by the researchers and designed to be very similar to the kinds of misinformation stories that have circulated in recent weeks and months. The fake stories stated the following:

  • Drinking coffee might protect against Covid-19
  • Eating chilli peppers might protect against the virus
  • A whistleblower from a leading pharmaceutical company had leaked information about complications arising from a Covid-19 vaccine being developed by the company
  • The HSE’s contact-tracing app was developed by individuals with ties to Cambridge Analytica, raising data privacy concerns

Approximately one in five (22.1%; 807 people) participants had a false memory of at least one fake story, and many others reported that the stories felt familiar.

Many participants provided detailed descriptions of how they felt when they first encountered the story – something which never actually happened.

For example, on reading the story about the vaccine, participants who remembered this story reported feeling “shocked”, “worried” and “concerned”; one participant noted that they were “very disappointed that the trials weren’t going well” and “glad that the whistleblower spoke up”.

Greene noted that 22% may seem high, but previous studies carried out by researchers on topics such as Brexit and the Eighth Amendment referendum found that 40% and almost 50% of participants respectively reported false memories about news stories that were not true.

Greene said the higher number of false memories in those surveys make sense because people are more likely to believe stories that back up their own partisan view – something that is less likely when dealing with Covid-19 stories as the issue is less political.

Impact on behaviour

Researchers also assessed participants’ intention to engage in a series of behaviours over the next few months, including the behaviours targeted by the fake stories.

Having a false memory for a fake story significantly affected participants behavioural intentions: people who ‘remembered’ the stories about chilli peppers and coffee had stronger intentions to eat more spicy food or drink more coffee over the next several months, while people who ‘remembered’ the stories about the Covid-19 vaccine or contact-tracing app were less willing to get the vaccine or download the app, once available.

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Participants were debriefed at the end of the study to make sure they understood which stories were fake – they were not aware of the purpose of the study until afterwards.

Researchers then followed up with participants one week later and found that there was no residual effect of false memories on behavioural intentions.

Greene said it was worrying but not surprising to see that exposure to false news could impact people’s behaviour. In the study people were debriefed, but in real life people exposed to misinformation often continue to believe it for some time and amend their behaviour accordingly.

“Of course, for ethical reasons, we weren’t able to see how long those effects will last. In this study we went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that we debriefed people, to make sure that they they knew what stories were fake, what stories were true.

“And we followed those people up after a week and the behavioural effects were no longer evident. In the middle of a pandemic, you don’t want to send people off with a false belief about what’s going to help or harm them,” Greene said.  

Warning didn’t have an impact

Participants who scored higher on a general knowledge test about Covid-19 were less susceptible to false memories, but those who reported feeling very anxious about the pandemic, or felt they were at high risk of catching the virus, were more likely to form false memories.

“It wasn’t people who were generically anxious, we asked about that, it was more people who were specifically anxious about Covid and people who felt that they were that they were high-risk (in terms of contracting the virus),” Greene said.

Participants who reported spending more time reading about Covid-19 online and talking to family and friends about it, were also more susceptible to creating false memories.

Greene said part of the reason some people reported false memories may also be because they don’t want to admit not remembering something.

Prior to taking the survey, people were shown a number of warnings about Covid-19, including two about misinformation – one positively-framed warning, asking people to play their part in society by thinking carefully before sharing news stories, and a negatively-framed warning people that sharing misinformation is dangerous and irresponsible.

positive warning Source: UCD/UCC

negative warning Source: UCD/UCC

“In order to avoid drawing attention to the purpose of the study, we mixed these warnings in with other posters containing the usual public health guidance on social distancing, handwashing, etc.

“Participants were assigned to view either the positive or negative warning, or to one of two control conditions in which they didn’t see any misinformation warnings, Greene said.

Effect of warning on truthfulness rating Source: UCD/UCC

She added that the researchers were surprised that seeing a misinformation warning before taking part in the survey appeared to have no impact on people’s answers.

“We were quite surprised, we found absolutely no effect whatsoever.

“It didn’t make any difference whether participants saw a warning at all, and it didn’t matter if they saw a positively or negatively framed warning,” she said.

Greene said the results of the study emphasise “the importance of thinking carefully before sharing or acting on stories you see online”.

“Consider the source of the story – does it come from a reputable media source? Are there links to primary sources, like peer-reviewed scientific findings?”

Greene advised people who are not sure about the accuracy of information they see online to consult an online fact-checking service, and “when in doubt, don’t share”.

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus. Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s. 

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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