A series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General provides evidence that the pressure to conform is a key psychological driver of sharing fake news. The findings indicate that failing to share misinformation that is endorsed by other group members can lead to adverse social consequences.
The emergence of social media has made it possible for people who lack expertise or have malicious intentions to spread bogus information. This situation has been blamed for the rise in political echo chambers, where people have filtered out information that is not aligned with the pre-existing beliefs of their in-group. The authors behind the new research were interested in how group-level dynamics might contribute to the sharing of fake news.
The researchers conducted a time-lagged study to track naturalistic social interactions on Twitter. They analyzed the tweets and political ideology of more than 50,000 pairs of Twitter users in the United States, including tweets sharing fake or hyper-partisan news between August and December 2020. The researchers used a network-based algorithm to determine political ideology based on the accounts users followed.
This initial study measured the number of tweets between the pairs of Twitter users in the same social circles and found that if one user shared a fake news story but the other did not, the likelihood of interaction between the two users decreased over time, regardless of political ideology. However, the effect was stronger for users who leaned towards the right.
“Conformity and social pressure are key motivators of the spread of fake news,” said lead researcher Matthew Asher Lawson, an assistant professor at INSEAD. “If someone in your online tribe is sharing fake news, then you feel pressure to share it as well, even if you don’t know whether it’s false or true.”
Next, the researchers analyzed 10,000 Twitter users who had shared fake news in the prior test and another group who were representative of Twitter users in general. The second study found that users who shared fake news were more likely to exclude other users who did not share the same content. This suggests that there may be more pressure to conform to certain beliefs or ideas in the world of fake news.
“Political ideology alone doesn’t explain people’s tendency to share fake news within their social groups,” Lawson said. “There are many factors at play, including the very basic desire to fit in and not to be excluded.”
In several other online experiments, it was found that people were less interested in interacting with social connections who did not share the same falsehoods as them. These social costs were stronger for not sharing fake news compared to other news. The researchers also found that participants who were more worried about not fitting in socially were more likely to share fake news.
“People fearing social costs are more likely to share fake news. Importantly, this fear is warranted: Social connections who did not share the same fake news as others experienced reduced social interaction on Twitter,” the researchers wrote.
“Likewise, participants indicated a tendency to sideline deviant group members for future social interactions in the experimental studies. By documenting both the role of social costs in determining sharing decisions and their real presence on Twitter, our work advances the literature by identifying social costs as a key psychological driver of the spread of misinformation.”
But Lawson and his colleagues highlighted a key question that should be addressed in future research: Do adverse social consequences simply promote conformity or do they cause people to internalize the misinformation? In other words, do people knowingly share falsehoods because of social pressure or does social pressure cause people to believe the falsehoods are actually true?
“This is important in determining the best strategy to combat people feeling pressured to share fake news,” they wrote.
The study, “Tribalism and Tribulations: The Social Costs of Not Sharing Fake News“, was authored by M. Asher Lawson, Shikhar Anand, and Hemant Kakkar.