A behavioural scientist at the University of Regina is looking into why people fall for, and share, fake news online.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to why fake news is shared online. The first works on a confirmation basis, meaning if the post you see fits into your beliefs, even if it seems a little unrealistic, a person is more likely to share it. The second, is the group that U of R behavioural scientist Gordon Pennycook belongs to, which believes, simply put, we’re lazy.
“It seems like an easy explanation, but it is, the brain is set up to be lazy. Another way to say that is efficient. If I ask you what your name is, you don’t have to think about it, it just pops into your head,” Pennycock said.
Pennycook and his team have been studying how we interact with fake news headlines on social media throughout the election campaign. He points to a number of studies that show it’s very hard to change someone’s vote via false information. But what it does do, is increase the anger amongst certain groups. Meaning, if you’re already mad at a candidate or party, then you see a false headline, you’re more likely to get increasingly upset.
The study shared real and fake news headlines with a random sampling of Canadians, without asking their political beliefs, then asked respondents if they would consider sharing certain posts on social media.
“One of the more concerning results is that if you ask people if they would share content, fake news, or whatever on social media, they’re really quite poor at distinguishing true from false – cause they don’t think that much,” Pennycock said.
Here’s where it gets interesting. When asked to reflect on the headline they’re seeing, meaning, is the headline before you real or fake, the results changed,
“The good news is it is fixable,” Pennycock said. “In the sense that it’s not that people aren’t too stupid to see what is true and false. In fact in most of our studies, if we ask people directly, they’re really good at identifying what’s real and not. In terms of fake news content, it’s just that they don’t bother thinking about things, so it’s just a matter of changing how we interact with social media.”
The spread of fake news on social media could be that simple, he adds, but notes social media sites are generally viewed as entertainment, and a good number of users just scroll and click rather than stop to reflect on what they’re seeing. Otherwise, the vicious cycle continues.
Pennycook and his team will continue to monitor the spread of false headlines, and memes, throughout the campaign.