Believing False News: A Crime of Passion?
The growing crisis of online misinformation has drawn substantial news coverage and scientific research. Recent events have also highlighted the offline consequences of digital falsehoods. Misleading health misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic has cost lives and political lies were weaponized as a tool by violent insurrectionists leading up to the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Many of these false stories and conspiracy theories were spread via social networking platforms.
Indeed, scrolling through Facebook, perusing Instagram, and skimming through Twitter have become universal pastimes. Social media environments help us plug in to our social and political worlds at any time, from any place. Social media platforms are also designed to provide us with constant emotional feedback—from the highs of likes and retweets to the lows of toxic trolls and doomscrolling. How might this barrage of emotions impact how we interact with online content, both real and false?
We surveyed over 400 people to explore whether there exists a relationship between emotionality and belief in false political news. We asked participants to report how much they were feeling 20 different emotions (such as ‘excited,’ or ‘afraid’) at the time of the survey. We also asked participants to evaluate the accuracy of a series of political news headlines—half of these headlines were factually accurate (true news), and half entirely untrue (false news).
Across a wide range of different emotions, feeling more emotions in the moment was associated with increased belief in false news headlines but not true news. Interestingly, this relationship held true for both positive emotions like ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘proud’ and for negative emotions like ‘upset’ or ‘irritable.’ People experiencing greater emotionality were also worse at distinguishing between true and false headlines.
Why might this be the case? Existing research has shown that analytic thinking—relying on reason and deliberation—is associated with decreased belief in false news. Therefore, we predicted that reliance on emotion, rather than reason, may increase belief in false news.
To test this question experimentally, we instructed nearly 4,000 research volunteers to rely on emotion rather than reason, reason rather than emotion, or neither when rating the accuracy of true and false political headlines.
When relying on emotion, people were the most likely to believe the false headlines. But it didn’t change their belief in true headlines. Thus, relying on emotion while engaging with online news content may increase susceptibility to believing false content.
What do these findings tell us? Let’s start with the bad news about false news. Prior research suggests that social networking sites are prime locations for the spread of highly emotional content. People are motivated to share emotional content. Emotional content grabs people’s attention. Therefore, it is likely that people consuming news on social media are already in a heightened emotional state. As our studies show, relying on this heightened emotion is a recipe for falling for misinformation. Social media environments may unfortunately be inducing the very kind of cognitive and emotional states that leave people most vulnerable to believing false content.
The good news? If relying too much on emotion is driving belief in false news, then encouraging folks to be less emotional consumers of information may help combat misinformation. At an individual level, this means remembering to think carefully about news headlines you scroll upon. Rather than feeling elated or outraged upon first glance, take a moment to consider first whether it is true. Train yourself to question.
Importantly, this is not to say that having an emotional reaction to a news story is bad—such emotions are to be expected and can be productive in helping process current events.
However, relying on emotion while evaluating whether a story is true can lead you astray. So, the next time you’re scrolling and come across a provocative news article, think for a second before clicking that angry react—is what you read actually true, or does it just feel true?
For Further Reading
Martel, C., Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2020). Reliance on emotion promotes belief in fake news. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 5(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-020-00252-3
Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2019). Lazy, not biased: Susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning. Cognition, 188, 39-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.06.011
Brady, W. J., Crockett, M. J., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2020). The MAD model of moral contagion: The role of motivation, attention, and design in the spread of moralized content online. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(4), 978-1010. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620917336
Cameron Martel is a PhD student at MIT Sloan School of Management. He studies misinformation and political behavior online. Twitter: @Cameron_Martel_