Fake news: the era of (mis)information
These are the times in which getting information about everything has never been so easy. The digital world is growing faster every day and any type of information is just a click away from our fingertips. Regardless of the benefits of having all the information at hand, there is no guarantee that it always proves to be true. Fake news presents real-life consequences in politics, public health or climate changes, as it threatens safety, security and justice. In fact, people might modify their behaviour according to what they read and see online.
In most cases, the language used in fake news aims at shocking, surprising and bringing novelty to people, therefore appealing to their emotion and hindering their capacity to tell fact from fiction. This increases share rates of fake news because people feel like they have information that others don’t, leading them to share the news that are novel rather than familiar. Research shows that fake news spread quicker, faster and get to a wider audience, being 70% more likely to be retweeted than truthful news (Vosoughi, Roy & Aral, 2018).
One way commonly used to fight fake news is presenting the information in a “myth-versus-fact” format, showing the fake news (myth) and the corresponding correction (fact). However, this type of format might cause more harm than good. Actually, this can increase the acceptance of false beliefs, reaching more people as it is broadly shared. What happens is that the “myth-versus-fact” format shows people the false information (myth), reinforcing that information and increasing levels of familiarity with it. Over time, people forget where and in which context they learned that information from, only remembering the information itself. This leads them to assume that the information is true, relying on the use of heuristics such as familiarity – people are more likely to accept familiar information as true. This is known as the Illusory Truth Effect (Pennycook, Cannon & Rand, 2018), a phenomenon which shows that increased exposure to a piece of information reinforces fluency and prior knowledge, making it more likely to be taken as true.
When it comes to news headlines, people tend to use mental shortcuts to judge them, failing to discern true from false information, due to a lack of careful reasoning or insufficient prior knowledge. Therefore, in order to promote fluency and familiarity, true information should be made as accessible as possible, in an easy way to process and remember, while avoiding jargons. Although it is important to provide education and teach people ways to distinguish between true and false information, behavioural science shows that information is not enough to change people’s behaviour, and in this specific case, to prevent the spread of fake news.
Nudges to combat fake news
Some nudges have shown to be effective to fight against the spread of fake news.
One of the main reasons that misinformation spreads quite fast in social media is the lack of accuracy. When people share or reshare news online, they don’t consider its accuracy. Therefore, making people reflect and slow down before sharing news has shown to be an effective way to tackle accuracy and reduce the spread of fake news. A nudge approach used to tackle accuracy is to ask people to rate the accuracy of the information before sharing it. Beyond that, asking if someone considers a headline as true or false, before sharing news, also increases sharing discernment. Another simple nudge to apply is to pop out a message asking “Are you sure?” before people make the decision to share. These simple interventions nudge people into a more rigorous evaluation, leading them to check the information before sharing it.
Besides, the timing of feedback about whether an information is true or false is also important when correcting fake news. Research shows that presenting “true” and “false” tags right after headlines reduces by 25.3% wrong evaluations of headlines, compared to a reduction of 8.6% to tags showed during exposure or to a 5.7% decrease for tags that appeared before the headlines (Brashier, Pennycook, Berinsky & Rand, 2021).
In a world that is becoming more and more digital, fake news is a problem that came to stay and it is not likely to end. Behavioral science research shows that the best strategy to combat dissemination of misinformation is to focus on communicating the truthful information in an easy and accessible way, so that everyone can understand it. The more it is spread, the more familiar it gets, reaching a step further towards a well-informed community.
Brashier, N. M., Pennycook, G., Berinsky, A. J., & Rand, D. G. (2021). Timing matters when correcting fake news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(5).
David, L., Baum, M., Benkler, Y., Berinsky, A., Greenhill, K., Menczer, F., ... & Zittrain, J. (2018). The Science of Fake News: Addressing Fake News Requires a Multidisciplinary Effort. Science, 359(8).
Pennycook, G., & Rand, D. G. (2021). The psychology of fake news. Trends in cognitive sciences.
Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 147(12), 1865.
Pennycook, G., McPhetres, J., Zhang, Y., Lu, J. G., & Rand, D. G. (2020). Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy-nudge intervention. Psychological science, 31(7), 770-780.)
Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), 85-95.
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146-1151.