LOS ANGELES — Over the past few years, it’s become quite commonplace to encounter fake news stories. Troublingly, whether it is something as seemingly harmless as a Facebook meme, or a political hit piece with a not-so-subtle agenda, misleading news items have become a fact of life in modern discourse. Now, a new international study finds the more we encounter a particular fake news story, we become steadily more inclined to share the story with others, even if we know it to be false.
Researchers from the University of Southern California and the London Business School say that people may feel less and less unethical and increasingly comfortable sharing a fake news story the more they themselves encounter it online. To put it succinctly, the more we see fake news, the more we accept it as a narrative, even if we know at our core it is simply not true.
The study’s authors say their findings carry heavy implications for social media executives, news organizations, and policymakers attempting to stop the rampant spread of misinformation online.
“We suggest that efforts to fight misinformation should consider how people judge the morality of spreading it, not just whether they believe it,” comments Daniel A. Effron, associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, in a release.
In a series of experiments, the research team asked a group of online participants to describe how unethical or acceptable they believed it would be to publish or share a fake news headline. They were also asked how likely they would be to “like,” share, block, or unfollow the account that originally posted the misinformation.
The results revealed that participants rated fake headlines they had seen more than once as more palatable and ethical to share in comparison to fake stories they were seeing for the first time. Furthermore, participants said they were more likely to “like” and share fake stories they had seen before, while being less likely to block or report the account that originally posted it. Perhaps most revealing of all, despite these other findings, participants admitted that fake headlines they had seen before were not anymore accurate or truthful than new fake stories.
“Thus, our main results cannot be explained by a tendency to misremember false headlines as true,” the study reads.
Current efforts to fight fake news are mainly focused on helping people differentiate fact from fiction. But, the study’s authors say such strategies aren’t going to help if many people know the content is false, and are still comfortable spreading it.
The research team hypothesize that the more we see a piece of false information, the more it accumulates a “ring of truthfulness,” which causes many to give the lies a moral pass of sorts, even when they don’t believe it as fact. Simply wanting or imagining a lie to be true can have a similar influence as well. Effron cites some of his prior research which found people are more likely to embrace a lie after picturing how it could have been true had past events unfolded differently.
“The results should be of interest to citizens of contemporary democracies,” Effron concludes. “Misinformation can stoke political polarization and undermine democracy, so it is important for people to understand when and why it spreads.”
The study is published in the scientific journal Psychological Science.