Are all sides of the political spectrum likely to seek information that proves them right?
Fake news (intentionally misleading or incorrect information) has received considerable attention in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election and Brexit. Why is this? A recent Buzzfeed News analysis found that in the final months leading up to the US election, fake news handily outshone real news. The top 20 fake new stories (generated more engagement on Facebook (i.e. likes, shares, and comments) than the top 20 news stories from credible sources such as The New York Times and The Washington Post (1). These types of stories include lies such as Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, or that Trump once groped the famous drag queen RuPaul. Some critics have even blamed Facebook for facilitating the spread of such misinformation (2). So much so in fact, that Facebook is taking efforts to reduce the influence of fake news in the upcoming UK elections (3).
Why is fake news so popular?
The appeal of fake news is hardly a mystery to psychologists. Mainstream media such as The New Yorker and Salon have correctly noted that fake news likely feeds upon the confirmation bias (4, 5, 6). A well-studied and robust phenomenon, the confirmation bias describes how people seek to maintain their pre-existing beliefs (7). They do so primarily through the following three behaviors.
- Firstly, people often engage in selective exposure, limiting themselves to sources that adhere to their worldview. This can include listening to politicized news channels or following like-minded people on social media.
- Another way that people confirm their beliefs is to interpret information in a biased way. Consider, for example, revelations about Trump’s tax filings. To his detractors, this information likely strengthened their belief that he is corrupt and selfish. To his supporters, this information very likely confirmed their belief that he was a capable and shrewd businessperson.
- Lastly, memory can serve to maintain our world-view. In general, people tend to remember bits of information that conform to their previously held beliefs and forget those that are incompatible.
While these insights are fascinating, they are not new. As noted above, numerous outlets have identified the relationship between fake news and the confirmation bias. However, until recently researchers had little clarity on an interesting factor: political ideology. More specifically, are the left and right equally biased in their selective exposure to information?
Who are the suckers?
The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology recently featured a paper that studied how political affiliation affects people’s selective exposure to information (8). Until now, there was some evidence that people on the right side of the political spectrum might be more likely to engage in confirmation bias. However, the authors of this recent study pointed out numerous methodological and theoretical flaws in the previous research (such as availability of information, or ambiguity of social media data). To this end, they developed a series of highly controlled experiments to test this question.
In the first study, participants began by indicating their opinion on same-sex marriage. Following this, the researchers presented two options. Participants could read and respond to eight arguments countering their opinion and enter a lottery to win 10 dollars, or read and respond to arguments consistent with their opinion and enter a lottery to win 7 dollars. In essence, participants could opt for a lower prize in order to avoid ‘cross-cutting’ information. Perhaps predictably, 63% of the participants indeed chose this latter option, avoiding the need to experience counter-attitudinal information. Less predictably, however, was the finding that there was no difference between groups. Those who were pro same-sex marriage and those who were against same-sex marriage were equally motivated to avoid reading statements counter to their beliefs.
Subsequent studies replicated the effect for political candidates in both US and Canadian elections. For example, the authors found that Obama and Romney voters were equally uninterested in learning about reasons for why people voted for the opposing candidate. The same effect occurred for the (at the time) upcoming Canadian national election in 2015, with supporters of the left-wing NDP behaving similarly to supporters of the right-wing Conservative Party.
We’re all biased, now what?
The top fake news of the US election complements these results. Although somewhat disproportionate and in Donald Trump’s favor, there are indeed fake stories that favored Clinton (Ireland was accepting Trump refugees; 9). Evidently, both Clinton and Trump supporters were attracted to (false) information that was compatible with their views.
The authors conclude their paper by noting that both sides are not always objectively valid (take for example the politicized issue of climate change in the US, which elsewhere in the world is an accepted fact; 10) or reasonable (citing Donald Trump’s measurably greater propensity to lie than Hilary Clinton; 11). This is a good point. In some cases, it simply might not seem worthwhile to entertain arguments from the other side (I’m looking at you, flat-earthers). However, this type of reasoning can be a slippery slope that indulges our inclinations towards confirmation bias.
Moreover, I would argue that the strongest implication of this study is not about when to entertain an opposing side, but instead how critical it is to evaluate our own echo chambers. When recent studies indicate that as many as 62% of US adults acquire their news from social media (12), it is clear that it is incredibly easy to insulate ourselves from outside opinions. Given the upcoming federal and legislative elections in Europe, knowing how and when people choose and interpret information is of paramount importance.
- Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175.
- Frimer, J. A., Skitka, L. J., & Motyl, M. (2017). Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 1-12.