Personality type and politics predict who will spread fake news »Nieman Journalism Lab
This article was originally published in Scientific American. It will be republished with permission.
Who shares fake news? Political scientists, behaviorists and the media have said that political conservatives are largely responsible for spreading misinformation. But while there is a documented association, not all conservatives share or advocate fake news. Such blanket generalizations threaten to condemn anyone who advocates conservative values, and that in turn risks further and more dangerous polarization.
In order to find solutions to this misinformation crisis, our society needs a clear assessment of who and what is driving the spread of malicious falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Our research on the exchange of misinformation has therefore examined another key factor in individual behavior: personality. There are several systems for identifying and measuring personality traits, but one of the most widely used is the five-factor theory, often referred to as the Big Five. It divides characteristics into five categories: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, tolerance and neuroticism. In this context, we have particularly focused on conscientiousness, which captures differences in order, impulse control, conventionality and reliability of people.
We thought that conscientiousness might help explain the connection between political conservatism and sharing fake news. Specifically, we predicted that Conservatives with Low Conscientiousness (LCCs) would spread more misinformation than other Conservatives or Liberals with low conscientiousness. We decided to investigate the relationship between personality, politics and the sharing of fake news in a series of eight studies with 4,642 participants.
First, we measured people’s political ideology and conscientiousness through ratings that asked participants about their values and behaviors. We then showed the same people a series of real and fake news about COVID and asked them to rate the veracity of the stories. Then we asked if they would consider sharing each story. We found that both liberals and conservatives sometimes found false stories to be true – and this mistake was likely caused, in part, by certain stories wanting to be true because they were in line with their beliefs. In addition, people of all political beliefs share false news, but this behavior was significantly higher in LCCs compared to everyone else in the study. If there was a high level of conscientiousness, for example, there was no difference between liberals and conservatives. Low-conscientious Liberals shared no more misinformation than their high-conscientious Liberal counterparts.
In a second study, we replicated these results with fake news with a strong political focus and observed an even greater effect. Once again, conscience-wide liberals, along with very conscientious conservatives, did not spread high levels of misinformation. But conservatives with little conscientiousness were frequent strays.
Next we asked: What explains the extraordinary tendency of LCCs to spread fake news? To investigate this question, we designed an experiment in which we not only collected information about the politics and personality of our participants, but also distributed questionnaires to their desire for chaos, support for socially and economically conservative issues, support for Donald Trump , Trust in mainstream media and the time spent on social media. We learned that LCCs expressed a general need for chaos – a desire to destroy and destroy existing political and social institutions – and this could explain their greater propensity for disseminating misinformation. This need reflects the underlying desire to assert the superiority of one’s own ideas or group over others and is particularly pronounced in conservatives with less conscientiousness. Importantly, other factors we examined, including support for Trump, the time we spent on social media, and political and economic conservatism weren’t as closely linked to the LCC’s increased tendency to spread fake news.
Unfortunately, our work on this personality trait also suggests that accuracy labels in messages do not solve the misinformation problem. We conducted a study in which we explicitly stated whether each news story in question was false by using a “controversial” tag that is often seen on social media, or whether it was true by using an “assisted” tag used. We have found that the assisted day increases the speed at which real stories are shared by both liberals and conservatives. However, the LCCs continued to spread misinformation more frequently, despite explicit warnings that the stories were wrong. While it is possible that these participants did not believe the fact-checking system, the results support claims that LCCs are distributing fake news in order to intentionally wreak havoc.
In fact, we did another study where participants were specifically told that an article they wanted to share was inaccurate. The participants then had the opportunity to change their answer. Not only did LCCs continue to share fake news more often than others in the study, they were also relatively insensitive to direct warnings that the stories they were trying to share were fake.
Asher Lawson is a PhD student in Management and Organizations at Duke University. In his work, he examines cognitive and gender-specific biases in organizations and society, building on judgment and decision theory and using big data. Hemant Kakkar is Assistant Professor of Management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. In his research, he relies on social psychological and evolutionary status theories to investigate the judgments and behavior of individuals and groups within social hierarchies.
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