Why We Fall For Fake News on Our Own Social Media Feeds
Recent research shows we might be more easily persuaded by certain sources.
Posted May 13, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Our likelihood of falling for fake news may not just depend on what the headline says, but also who said it.
- We are more likely to believe fake news from sources that align with our political views, because we think they are more credible.
- As many social media users follow politically similar sources, this may increase their likelihood of believing fake news on their own newsfeeds.
It’s a lazy, legs-up Sunday afternoon on the couch, and you’re mindlessly scrolling through your social media feed.
As per usual, it’s a random assortment of cats eating noodles and anniversary celebrations mixed with various uninteresting news updates, and you’re barely paying attention.
Until a shocking headline catches your eye.
You swiftly glance over the emotionally charged words with a scandalous revelation. Surely that can’t be true! Or can it?
In this era where we’re told to be hypervigilant about fake news, what are the chances you will think a false headline on your newsfeed is true, even if it isn’t?
The chances are probably higher than you think. Why?
Because you chose the sources on your newsfeed.
That is, the news we see on our social media feeds tends to be published by sources we have decided to follow, likely because we believe these sources will provide us with accurate information. In other words, we perceive them to be credible. And new research shows that relying solely on the credibility of sources could increase our likelihood of falling for fake news.
Falling for fake news: Why sources matter
In a recently published study, researchers at Cambridge University asked news consumers to evaluate the accuracy of news headlines. Some of these were factual (and verified by multiple sources), and some were completely false and taken from hoax websites.
Importantly, they manipulated the sources such that for some headlines, the false information appeared to be published by left-leaning news sources like CNN, and sometimes by right-leaning news sources like Fox News (this was part of the study’s "deception"). On a separate task, the researchers also asked participants to judge how credible they perceived the news sources to be.
What they found was that most participants used their evaluations of the source’s credibility to assess the headline’s accuracy. That is, if they perceived the source to be credible, they were more likely to perceive the headline to be accurate too.
While this may sound like an encouraging finding, there was an important caveat. Participants relied so much on the perceived credibility of the sources that they rated even blatantly false headlines as more likely to be true simply because of the associated source.
And relying solely on the credibility of a news source can be a problem.
Credible sources can also publish misinformation
There is increasing evidence that a proportion of misinformation comes from well-known and even popular news sources.
For example, in 2014, PolitiFact rated 58 percent of Fox News Channel's and 22 percent of CNN's assertions as false or mostly false. As recently as in the COVID-19 pandemic, research showed that right-leaning broadcast and cable media such as Fox News frequently discussed misinformation about the virus.
Importantly, misinformation can be published due to human error or bias—without direct intent to deceive.
For example, in the early days of the pandemic, a trusted national news broadcaster in Denmark discussed the false claim that "face coverings don’t work"—journalists had unintentionally misinterpreted the findings of a small local study.
This headline was enough to lead countless national and international news sources to jump onboard with similar headlines, leading to a perception among members of the local population that mask mandates were pointless.
Your perceptions of credibility may be biased
Interestingly the researchers from Cambridge University also found that participants were more likely to believe fake news if the headlines were supposedly published by a source that shared their political orientation.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, the source’s political slant turned out to be a major contributor to their perceptions of the source’s credibility. This effect was true for both liberal and conservative participants.
These findings suggest that we may be more likely to be influenced by false information from sources on our own newsfeeds. While we may believe these sources do not have the intent to deceive us, their publications may not be 100 percent free from misleading information, either because of bias or human error.
Given that it may not be enough to just rely on a source’s credibility, here are three tips to avoid falling for fake news on your own feed.
1. Rely on multiple sources.
If a headline uses highly emotional language or seeks to discredit others (two common misinformation strategies identified in previous misinformation research), you’d be well off checking the source as the first step.
But you’d be even better off if you checked whether several news media outlets on your newsfeed are saying the same thing.
If several credible news outlets are publishing similar headlines, this may increase the likelihood of the information being true.
2. Find the original evidence.
If the source of a particular headline or article is not the primary source of the information, it's a good idea to check where this information originated from. For example, it may be an article relaying parts of an interview or describing the findings of a scientific study.
If it's a credible news publisher, they should provide a link to the original source, where you'll be able to verify whether a particular journalist or writer is potentially misinterpreting the information or portraying it in a misleading or biased manner.
3. Diversify your newsfeed.
To decrease the risk that you will fall for misleading headlines simply because the source shares your political ideology, try not to just follow news sources that align with your views.
A diverse newsfeed will not only broaden your access to news coverage but also if a headline is supported by both right and left-wing news sources, this significantly decreases the risk that it is false.
A final finding in the work by the Cambridge researchers showed that both liberals and conservatives perceived their “own” trusted news sources to be neutral on the political spectrum, but politically different sources to be highly biased.
So, if you think all the sources on your newsfeed are politically neutral, this may in fact be evidence that your sources are politically biased.
Iyengar, S., & Massey, D. S. (2019). Scientific communication in a post-truth society. PNAS, 116(16), 7656–7661. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805868115.
Motta, M., Stecula, D., & Farhart, C. (2020). How right-leaning media coverage of Covid- 19 facilitated the spread of misinformation in the early stages of the pandemic in the U.S. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1017/ S0008423920000396.
Sharockman, A. (2014). Fact-checking Fox, MSNBC and CNN: Pundit Fact’s network scorecards. PolitiFact. https://www.politifact.com/article/2014/sep/16/fact-ch ecking-fox-msnbc-and-cnn-punditfacts-networ/.
Traberg, C S. and van der Linden, S. (2022). Birds of a feather are persuaded together: Perceived source credibility mediates the effect of political bias on misinformation susceptibility. Personality and Individual Differences, 185, 111269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2021.111269.
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