Opinion: People can spot fake news. Why do conspiracy theories thrive on social media?
Williams is a majoring in political science originally from the Carmel Valley. Ziment is a public policy analysis major, originally from 4S Ranch. Both are students of Pomona College, Claremont.
A new conspiracy theory is emerging: Omicron is a variant invented by the Democrats to help them with the midterm elections. Pete Hegseth, a commentator on Fox News, suggested that “you can expect a variation around every October, every two years.” It is natural to wonder who would believe such ridiculous conspiracy theories. Perhaps it’s not necessarily a suddenly widespread belief in the correctness of conspiracies, but rather a new digital world that allows them to spread and flourish.
This digital world is led by social media, the main culprit responsible for increasing support for conspiracy theories by promoting inaccurate sharing and keeping information processing on the surface.
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Many believe that political ideology promotes belief in fake news and conspiracy theories, and while partisanship is important, it’s not as important as many claim it is. Nor is it that people are unable to distinguish accurate news from false news. While people are more likely to believe and agree with partisan political views, studies show that people asked for real headlines are correct. You may even be better able to gauge the veracity of the views of those with similar policies.
So what is actually driving this phenomenon?
It depends on heuristics (mental abbreviations) and the level of analytical thinking. The idea that “like with like” leads people to believe conspiracy theories because your brain instinctively believes that big causes must have big effects.
The “illusory truth effect” is another heuristic that describes how previous contact with a fake headline increases belief later. Duration of exposure to a medium can be an extremely influential factor in belief. Psychology researchers Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand point out that people’s likelihood of believing in fake news content decreases when they are more reflective and able to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Overconfidence hinders reflective thinking and leads to more belief in conspiracy theories.
In the tug-of-war between intuitive and rational systems, social media help to stimulate processing on an intuitive level. Bypassing deeper processing increases support for conspiracy theories as they are not fully processed due to their accuracy. It’s not necessarily that people don’t care to ensure the accuracy of what they read and share. Instead, social media helps focus their attention on other factors that detract from the deeper processing necessary to discover what is truth and what is not.
A recent study found that social media distractors and their desire to gain followers contributed to an increased likelihood of sharing misinformation. For conspiracy theories, increasing media sharing, regardless of its veracity, means a more productive message and a broader base for those false stories to grow with. And with more following, those stories gain validity, and the self-sustaining cycle powered by social media feeds the fire of misinformation dissemination.
The core of this new development is the realization that the form of digital media influences the processing of information. Images or text blurbs, which can often be found on platforms such as Twitter, are processed quickly and automatically. Thus, the conspiracy theories presented in this format and on these platforms are processed faster, less controlled and based on accuracy.
These recent discoveries about the influence of media type on processing, coupled with the rise to incisive and accessible media platforms like Twitter and TikTok, are what are creating an environment where conspiracy theories are more resonant and thriving now more than ever.
With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that research by Xizhu Xiao of Qingdao University, China, and Porismita Borah and Yan Su of Washington State University show that “social media messaging has been associated with higher conspiracy beliefs and trust on social media messages as a major moderator of the relationship between social media message use and conspiracy beliefs. “
So what’s the solution? Studies show that credibility indicators that check sources and present a rating reduce mis-disclosure. But that’s not something normal people are in control of. What can people like you do to combat this effect? Research shows that being an active, thoughtful, and open-minded social media user is associated with good online behavior. Before you share anything, spend a few seconds just thinking, “Is this something you think is true?”