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By Eric Reed
Why do people believe information that is untrue?
There are many answers to this question. Much of the time, however, misinformation spreads and sticks for a simple reason: It gives the believer something that they wanted to believe in the first place.
People put feelings over facts
“The reason that misinformation is such a problem is because we demand it,” says Dannagal Young, a professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware. Her research includes the effects of political media and the psychology of misinformation.
Misinformation is a false belief that’s shared, often but not always with the intent to deceive. “It’s not random lies,” says Dannagal. “The falsehoods that people believe in satisfy certain needs on the part of the individual. They either make [them] feel smart or safe or confident or appreciated or in the know.”
Misinformation succeeds, in layman’s terms, because it makes people feel good. People believe stories that reinforce or reward the way that they see the world. They share stories that boost their ego or make them feel like part of a team.
But as misinformation plays a growing role in U.S. civic life, its negative effects can be seen in everything from QAnon conspiracy theories to anti-mask and vaccine protesters resisting effective COVID-19 public health measures. While the beliefs these adherents cling to range from misinterpretation of data to the blatantly false, they inspire real, and often dangerous, action — and the people who believe in them can be difficult to disabuse.
Online, information and entertainment overlap
“The problem with trying to convince people about what’s true is you’re constrained by the truth. In most cases the truth is just not as interesting as what’s made up,” says Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavior science at the University of Regina’s Hill/Levene School of Business.
Pennycook’s work largely focuses on understanding reasoning and decision-making. Through recent research he conducted on misinformation and fake news, he saw that social media created an environment that is harmful to critical thinking. When people were more reflective, they were less likely to believe false headlines, even if those otherwise aligned with their political or religious ideology. But when given less time to consider the content, people said more false headlines were true.
The problem, according to Pennycook, is that people don’t come to social media to think critically — they come for entertainment. “If you think about the choice people make about whether to share something, it’s just a different thing [than] whether they’re critically assessing it,” he says. “If the task was to figure out what’s true, that’s a different sort of task than to figure out what people will like.”
“Especially in an attention economy,”– that is, the type of environment that social media creates, where a seemingly endless stream of content holds and commodifies our attention — “the first step is getting people to watch or engage with what you want,” says Pennycook. “If you can just make stuff up, that’s a lot easier.”
For the believer, embracing a story may also reinforce a sense of status or feed existing fears. Spreading that misinformation, says Pennycook, has its own rewards. It confers social status that comes with the appearance of knowledge.
“Often people share things and they don’t even seem to consider whether it’s true or false,” says Pennycook. “They’re thinking about, is this important? Are people going to like this? Or is this going to make me look good?”
People connect information to identity
Not every falsity shared online takes off. Misinformation, when it succeeds, is grounded in something relevant to the people it reaches.
According to Dannagal, this is why so much misinformation targets politics and political identities.
“We are in a moment, a political and cultural moment that makes it even more likely that we’re demanding misinformation. And all of these demands have to do with identity, with who we are,” she says. “And there are complex reasons why this is true, [but] our political identities have become these encompassing identities.”
And, says Dannagal, once members of a community begin to accept a story, it takes on a life of its own. As the story spreads, readers want to believe because it reinforces their sense of identity and membership in that community.
This tendency to believe information that confirms one’s existing worldviews is called “confirmation bias.” People are not only quicker to believe information that aligns with their beliefs, but they seek it out and find fault with information that does not. Pretty soon, it can seem like contrary evidence doesn’t even exist.
“The goal,” Dannegal adds, “becomes not about being right, but feeling right.”
The is almost a paradox at the heart of misinformation. People come to believe in the untruths they read and share online, but they don’t start out intending to do so.
A reader might start out curious about reported side effects of the coronavirus vaccines, and soon enough find themselves surrounded by people who claim the vaccines are unsafe. As the CDC itself found in its report on health information, “many people who share misinformation aren’t trying to misinform. Instead, they may be raising a concern, making sense of conflicting information, or seeking answers to honest questions.”