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Why Media's Illusion of Truth Might Break Your Moral Compass

Social media doesn't have to lie to us; we learn to do it to ourselves.

Key points

  • Misinformation tends to face lesser moral scrutiny when one is repeatedly exposed to it.
  • Repetition is unlikely to make wrongdoing seem right, but it may make it appear a little less wrong.
  • People want to believe that the world is fundamentally just and fair.
Isi Parente / Unsplash
Source: Isi Parente / Unsplash

Imagine scrolling through your social media feed, only to come across a news headline that reads: “A flight attendant slapped a 7-month-old baby in the face for crying during a flight.”

A story this sensational automatically captures your attention and likely stirs complex emotions within you. But what happens when you encounter this same news story repeatedly? Moreover, what if you find out that this headline was entirely false?

A 2023 study published in the journal Psychological Science used this very headline along with seven other false yet eye-catching headlines (including stories ranging from earphones exploding in people’s ears to intel on FBI’s covert facial recognition software) to understand the effect that repeated exposure of falsified sensational information has on our minds.

The research uncovered two psychological effects or reactions that a viewer can have, which play a pivotal role in shaping our judgments about clickbait news and the perpetrators of moral transgressions. These effects are as follows:

1. The Moral Repetition Effect

The “moral-repetition effect” demonstrates that repeated encounters with the same reports of wrongdoing can discourage people from questioning its ethical ramifications over time.

This desensitization occurs because our emotional responses, particularly anger, diminish every single time we are exposed to a trigger. This process is known as an “affective-desensitization mechanism.” Experiencing lower levels of anger leads to less severe moral judgments of a transgression.

A 2019 study shows us how this emotional erosion can manifest as dangerous online behavior. The research found that repeated exposure to fake news headlines led to a consistent reduction in how unethical it felt for people to share it with others, even when they knew the headlines were fabricated.

This meant that participants reposted the headline upon encountering it again, even when it was explicitly labeled and known to them to be false, demonstrating that misinformation tends to face lesser moral scrutiny when one is repeatedly exposed to it.

A 2022 study supplemented these findings. Participants rated fake news sharing, real and hypothetical business transgressions, and various everyday wrongdoings as less unethical and less deserving of punishment if they had seen descriptions of these behaviors previously.

2. The Illusory-Truth Effect

Another concerning aspect of this moral desensitization is its connection to the “illusory-truth effect.” This cognitive bias suggests that when we encounter information repeatedly, we tend to perceive it as true, even if it is not.

In the context of viral content, this effect amplifies the moral-repetition effect. This implies that the more we hear about wrongdoing, the more inclined we might be to believe it as the truth (even if it is fictional) and the less we might care about its ethical implications, making our moral judgments more lenient.

Researchers suggest that one of the reasons behind this could be the “just world hypothesis,” a theory that suggests that people want to believe that the world is fundamentally just and fair. According to this worldview, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, and this can provide a sense of order and predictability in the world.

However, in trying to preserve their belief in a just world, people create a number of strategies to see the world as less threatening. They may rationalize wrongdoings, especially the ones that seem plausible. This results in reduced negative emotional states and, consequently, in more lenient moral judgments.

People also tend to believe that the more prevalent a behavior is, the more moral or acceptable it must be. As explained by the researchers of the 2023 study, “Repetition is unlikely to make wrongdoings seem right, but it does appear to make them appear a little less wrong.”

The implications of these phenomena are far-reaching. As we encounter viral content daily, its psychological impact can gradually desensitize us to the ethical implications of the information we consume and share. However, we are not powerless against this.

Here are steps we can take to safeguard our values and be more objective in our judgment:

  • Fact-check and share responsibly. Sensational news is often designed to provoke reactions, counting on our outrage and engagement. Challenge the credibility of sources and scrutinize content before accepting it as fact. This way, you can make an informed decision about whether the information is accurate, ethical, and in alignment with your values before hitting that share button.
  • Adopt a balanced worldview. Seek out diverse perspectives and sources of information to help you avoid the trap of repetitive, one-sided narratives. Further, while it’s natural to seek justice and fairness in the world, be mindful not to rush to judgment when encountering negative news. Avoid making assumptions about an individual's actions without concrete evidence. This can help you maintain a balanced and informed perspective.
  • Cultivate emotional awareness. Be attuned to your emotional responses. If you find yourself becoming desensitized to troubling news, take a step back and reflect on its ethical implications. Creating some distance can also help you stay connected to your value system and sense of self. Mindfully engage with news and social media only when you have the emotional capacity to do so.


In a world flooded with viral stories, it is essential to understand their psychological impact on our moral judgments. Repeated exposure to shocking news stories can leave us morally desensitized and distort our perception of the truth.

As responsible and empowered consumers of information, we can remain vigilant, question the narratives we encounter, and carefully consider the long-term effects of our digital engagement. Equipped with this information, we can navigate this landscape with integrity and ensure that our moral compass remains true.

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