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People who are likely to dismiss journalism as “fake news” tend to believe that the world is predictable

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Psychology shapes the likelihood that readers will conclude controversial information in news reports that it has been deliberately forged. Photo credit: Photo Kozyr / Shutterstock

The term “fake news” spread like wildfire in the US after the 2016 elections. Recent research in psychology has sought to determine what psychological factors drove this concept – generally defined as a suspicion that politically biased news outlets are deliberately producing falsified information. In a series of six studies involving more than 2,800 participants, the authors presented summaries of controversial or withdrawn news and asked whether participants believed inaccuracies to be honest errors or deliberate attempts to mislead the public. They found that people with a strong need to see the world as structured, organized, and predictable are most likely to dismiss a story as deliberately faked.

“There’s something psychological here,” says co-author Jordan Axt, a social psychologist who led the study as a postdoc at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Axt says it is well known – through a number of studies like this one – that a strong need to view the world as ordered and predictable is associated with conspiratorial thinking. “So what’s new about it is that we’re applying it promptly,” he adds. Much research to date has also looked at which people are most likely to believe biased or falsified information. But few studies have examined the tendency of readers to discredit something they don’t want to believe in the context of fake news, he says.

In this new work, the participants examined their structural needs in an online survey with questions such as “I don’t like unsafe situations”. The participants answered on a scale of totally agree. They also reported their political affiliation – only self-proclaimed Democrats and Republicans were included in the analyzes. Each participant read summaries of controversial or withdrawn messages that either agreed or contradicted their political views, or read more general summaries that made liberal or conservative media suspicious, and were asked to what extent they believed that any errors were accidental or deliberate . In order to control a strong political ideology, the authors also presented controversial stories from the conservative media to Republican participants and vice versa for democratic participants – ie stories which partisan supporters would therefore be less motivated to dismiss as falsification.

Nevertheless, the authors found a significant correlation between the need for structure and the tendency to call something fake news. Republican participants showed a stronger association between the need for structure and their labeling of a story as fake news. Previous studies have shown that people with conservative political leanings tend to see the world as predictable rather than moody. These latest findings don’t tell whether Democrats or Republicans are dismissing something as fake news, but suggests that categorizing a story as fake news for Republicans may be more related to a need for order. “Because Republicans have a stronger basic need for structure, they are more inclined to ascribe fake news to see that structure in the world,” says Axt.

The six studies differed in the content that participants read. In some studies, participants read summaries of controversial or withdrawn messages. In others, they saw experimentalist essays describing a recent surge in withdrawn new stories from either typically liberal or conservative media that might reflect a more general media bias. The studies also differed in whether the scenarios coincided with the political views of the participants.

All of the studies showed a positive correlation between the participants’ need for structure and their tendency to suspect narrative errors as intended, but the correlation was only significant in three of the six studies. A meta-analysis of all studies showed a small but robust association, says Axt. According to psychologist Lisa Fazio of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this suggests that the need for structure alone doesn’t determine how people opt out of the message. “Of course there is more,” says Fazio, who was not involved in the study. “I think there are probably more personality variables influencing people’s desire to view the news media as intentionally misinformation.” Fazio wasn’t speculating what variables these might be.

But for those with a strong need for structure, the logic of fake news makes sense, says Duke’s co-author and social psychologist Aaron Kay. “Suppose I’m a democrat and I don’t want to believe a story that suggests that the world isn’t built the way I want to believe it,” he explains. This democrat could dismiss the story in two ways. You could just shrug your shoulders and say the story was wrong because the journalist made a random, accidental mistake, Kay notes. But that would also mean that “the people who provide information make arbitrary mistakes,” says Kay, and thus the world is unpredictable. If instead the Democrats believe the mistake was intentional, they can discredit history while continuing to see the world as ordered. “That’s why we see the need for structure as a variable,” says Kay.

Axt says follow-up studies could survey participants monthly during the election cycle to see if perceptions of fake news remain constant over time. You mustn’t. If a respondent’s preferred candidate is low in the polls, Axt can expect “correspondingly to increase the notion that the news media are trying to deceive us”.

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