Americans tend to share fake news to fit in socially, French study reports

“Conformity and social pressure are key motivators of the spread of fake news,” said lead researcher assistant Prof. of decision sciences Matthew Asher Lawson

Fake news [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Fake news [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

The social-media plague of fake news is shared by both conservative and liberal Americans because they don’t want to be ostracized from their social circles, according to research published by the American Psychological Association in its Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Conformity and social pressure are key motivators of the spread of fake news,” said lead researcher assistant Prof. of decision sciences Matthew Asher Lawson at INSEAD, a French business school. “If someone in your online tribe is sharing fake news, you feel pressure to share it as well, even if you don’t know whether it’s false or true.”  

The research was published in article “Tribalism and tribulations: the social costs of not sharing fake news.” 

The proliferation of fake news contributes to increasing political polarization and distrust of democratic institutions, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy organization based in Washington, DC. But fake news doesn’t always proliferate because of dark motives or a call for action, wrote the researchers, who began studying the issue after noticing people in their own social networks sharing fake news, seemingly without malicious intent or ideological purpose.  

“Political ideology alone doesn’t explain people’s tendency to share fake news within their social groups,” Lawson said. “There are many factors at play, including the very basic desire to fit in and not to be excluded.”

Fake news experiment 

One experiment analyzed the tweets and political ideology of more than 50,000 pairs of American Twitter users, including tweets sharing fake or hyper-partisan news between August and December 2020. The number of tweets between pairs of Twitter users in the same social circles were measured. Twitter users were found to be less likely to interact with each other over time if one of them shared a fake news story and the other did not share that same story. The same effect was found regardless of political ideology but was stronger for more right-leaning participants.

A second experiment analyzed 10,000 Twitter users who had shared fake news in the prior test, along with another group that was representative of Twitter users in general. Twitter users who had shared fake news were more likely to exclude other users who didn’t share the same content, suggesting that social pressures may be particularly acute in the fake news ecosystem.

Across several more online experiments, participants indicated a lesser desire to interact with social connections who failed to share the same fake news. Those who were more concerned about the social costs of not fitting in were also more likely to share fake news.    While fake news may seem overwhelming, prior research has found that fake news only accounts for 0.15% of Americans’ daily media consumption, and just one percent of individuals are responsible for 80% of fake-news sharing. Other research found that election-related misinformation on Twitter decreased by 73% after Donald Trump was banned from the using it. 

Many complex factors contribute to people’s decisions to share fake news so reducing its spread is difficult, and the role of social media companies isn’t always clear, Lawson said.

They concluded that “pre-bunking” methods that inform people about the ways that misinformation spreads and highlighting the importance of the accuracy of news can help reduce the spread of fake news. Yet, finding ways to ease the social pressure to conform in online spaces may be needed to start winning the war on misinformation, Lawson said.