The Source of Misinformation Matters

Why it matters when Trump, in particular, shares misinformation

Posted Aug 03, 2020

Photo by Marta DM / Purchased from Shutterstock
Mask Up Against Misinformation
Source: Photo by Marta DM / Purchased from Shutterstock

When I was interviewed by Al Jazeera English LIVE on Wednesday evening (July 29th, 2020), the anchor asked me whether misinformation carried more impact when Trump shares it.  Although it may seem obvious as to why the "leader of the free world" would be more influential than your neighbor three doors down, what's the science?  As I had but moments to respond, I summarized quickly that persuasion research shows us that the source of a message matters particularly the extent to which the source is liked, trusted, and is perceived as carrying some sort of authority contribute to making a message more persuasive.  Let's address each of these.

Liking: As Trump's approval ratings suggest, his popularity is at an all-time low.  However, there is still approximately 40 percent of the population who approve and thus likely "like" him.  In fact, the loyalty of his base was touted by Trump when he was a candidate and famously said "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" Indeed, as of the most recent Gallup polls, the overwhelming majority of self-identified Republican respondents (91 percent) supported the President.  So clearly, among a significant portion of the U.S. population, Trump is liked.  Consequently, his word, including his retweets, carries more weight. 

It shouldn't be a real surprise that if we like someone we are more likely to listen to what they have to say (just as if we dislike someone we are significantly less likely to listen).  In fact, "liking" is one of the core six principles of persuasion identified by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his classic research on marketing. Today, marketing research has identified liking as the second most powerful tool in attracting consumers. Now, even if you like your neighbor, chances are your neighbor doesn't have quite the fan base of the President.  Trump might be dissatisfied with the numbers, but I suspect he has a couple million more fans on Facebook and Twitter than your neighbor.

Authority: A second principle of persuasion that Trump carries that your neighbor, even if you like them, may not carry is authority.  Note, authority can be distinct from expertise.  Expertise is about what you know due to experience, training, and education.  Authority is about whether others think you should be respected.  Authority can be afforded someone due to having a position of leadership, like, oh I don't know, President.  However, that doesn't necessarily make them an expert in anything really.  In fact, at being a politician, Trump is recognized as a novice and his inexperience was touted early on as a plus as then he was a "Washington Outsider."  

Or think about any time a state governor has a hurricane bearing down on their part of the country.  The governor is likely not an expert in meteorology, but it is the governor, exercising authority, who issues the evacuation call.  Saying things with certainty can make up the difference for a non-expert authority.

Once in the position of President, the role clearly carries authority (especially among those who want him there) and power.  One doesn't have to look far to see evidence of the power of authority in persuasion, whether it be in Dr. Stanley Milgram's controversial obedience to authority studies or back to Cialdini's principles of persuasion in advertising, the "authority effect" or "authority principle" means that those in positions of leadership have more influence than those not.  With some evidence suggesting that this authority effect has been exacerbated since 9/11.

Trust: Both liking and authority are linked to higher perceived trust being assigned to a source and their message.  Even if they didn't increase trust, polling shows that while only 30 percent of Americans trust Trump, among Republicans the margin is significantly different with the majority of Republicans reporting that they trust Trump, even more than those reporting that they trust the CDC and more than the news.  Credible sources can carry even greater impact when the message they share is consistent with what their audience wants to hear.

Pew Research Center
Republicans vs. Democrats: Is the worst behind us?
Source: Pew Research Center

Consequences: Combined, these factors make the President a powerful voice for his followers.  Consequently, it is not surprising to see studies revealing a sharp divide between what Republicans and Democrats believe about the virus.  For instance, despite COVID-19 positive test rates currently rising in 30 out of the 50 states, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to believe the "worst is behind us" (see graph).  Similarly, with over 150,000 deaths and America accounting for less than 4 percent of the world population but 23 percent of the deaths, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe that the virus is not a public health threat.  Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to believe conspiracy theories linked to the virus, with almost 60 percent of Republicans surveyed believing the virus was engineered in China.  And this divide is growing

While the majority of Americans are still practicing protective measures, like social distancing or wearing masks, there is evidence that these practices are waning as well.  Although there are multiple reasons why people are abandoning personal protective measures, the political divide echoes. Republicans, relative to Democrats, are less likely to report wearing a mask and more likely to advocate for resuming regular life. Misinformation is costing people their lives.

For these reasons, public health officials have labeled misinformation another viral pandemic they are having to combat (aka: "misinfodemic") which slows the process of finding the real solutions to the actual pandemic.  Accordingly, in addition to COVID-19 protective measures, we all need to be more vigilant about disinfecting our social media profiles of toxic information, reminding ourselves that accuracy is more important than the speed of sharing,  and socially distancing ourselves from misleading sources even if we like them.  In the meantime, we will keep up the search for vaccinations.