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How do fake news headlines trigger emotions? New study sheds light on the darkness

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How do fake news headlines trigger emotions? New study sheds light on the darkness | Photo credit: iStock Images

Washington: How people’s emotions are aroused by false political headlines and how their reactions determine whether or not they share these stories with others was investigated in a new study. The research was published in the Journal of Management Information Systems.

“Emotions really seem to play a role in spreading fake news,” said Christy Galletta Horner (A&S ’05, EDUC ’13G,’ 15G), now an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University and lead author on the study.

“Emotions are often ignored in research, and I think in this case it could be a mistake,” she added.

Concerned about the increasing presence of misleading news in recent years, Galletta Horner took the chance to study the trend when she was approached by then PhD student Abhijeet Shirsat about his PhD thesis on the subject. During the 2020 election season, the team presented online polls to 879 participants and showed them one of eight fake news headlines, covering topics from political scandals to candidate health issues, involving either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. The survey asked if they would share the headline or contrary information and how they felt about it. The team found that the participants were roughly divided into three groups. The first was most likely to say that they would share the headlines on the fake news.

“This is a group that loves all the emotions, that group of people we called ‘hot,'” said Dennis Galletta, co-author, professor of business administration at Pitts Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and father by Galletta Horner.

“So we can’t just say that anger drives everything or that happiness drives everything. It really depends, ”he added.

Another, who the team called a “disgruntled” user, responded largely negatively to the headlines. The majority, however, fit into what the researchers called the “cold” group, which did not respond at all and was less likely to share anything. The political affiliation of the participants also influenced their reactions: Unsurprisingly, they made negative headlines about an opposing party. However, the researchers also found party-specific differences.

“The Independents seem to be the most skeptical of them all, and the Republicans believed the wrong headlines more, even when it came to Trump,” said Galletta.

However, the researchers found that participants were recruited online and were not necessarily representative of the state of the United States

“It was surprising to see how many people just don’t care,” added Galletta.

He sees this “cold” group as having the potential to be mobilized by appealing to their emotions.

“I think the majority would be people who, if their emotions were aroused, would suppress the fake news” by posting information to counter it, he said.

While social media platforms have recently tried to counter misinformation by adding warnings to posts, Galletta Horner noted that this new study suggests that this approach may only go so far.

“If you’ve invested in the information by then, they’ll find a way to explain it away,” she said.

For Galletta Horner, every technological or regulatory approach had to be accompanied by an educational approach.

“When people get more aware of why they are feeling a certain way on a headline, they are more likely to pause after feeling the emotion,” she said.

“And hopefully start some of those cognitive processes where they can gauge the source of the information,” she added.

While the study focused on an urgent, topical phenomenon, in some respects it has been in the works for decades.

“I’ve had a newspaper with Christy on my bucket list for many years,” said Galletta.

“My daughter is studying something that fascinates me and she is an excellent writer,” he added.

Galletta had told his daughter since childhood that a professor was the best job in the world. Now that she has her own research lab studying emotions in social contexts, she agrees.

“I absolutely love what I do,” said Galletta Horner.

“And I’m so grateful that he was a role model for me in this position,” she added.

Due to the different scientific disciplines and research approaches, the collaboration required more than just a little negotiating skills. It was necessary for both of them to work their way out of their typical areas of study – but that stretch was productive in the end.

“Fake news is a social problem that both of us are very concerned about, and there is simply a great need to find creative solutions and different perspectives,” said Galletta Horner.

“But my favorite part of it was just hanging out with my dad a lot,” she concluded.

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