Knowing how fake news preys on your emotions can help you spot it
Fake news is created with the goal of convincing your emotions to betray you. Don't let it
A federal election is coming and Canadians should be wary of being exposed to fake and misleading news, particularly on social media.
What you need to look out for most during this election cycle is your own emotional bias. This is what leads us to share fake news without checking the facts first.
We have been researching the psychology of fake news for almost three years now, with the goal of finding out why people believe fake news and what each of us do to avoid falling for it ourselves. We have uncovered a few answers; one of the most important of which was recently detailed in a paper titled Reliance on Emotion Promotes Belief in Fake News.
Our conclusion is simple enough, but has major implications for our federal election:
False news content often appeals to our emotions and, if we don't stop and question whether our feelings are valid, we are likely to believe (and share) claims that are misleading or just plain untrue.
When you see a news headline that makes you feel something either very good or very bad, make sure it isn't too good, or too bad, to be true.- Gordon Pennycook, Cameron Martel and David Rand
Emotional mindset vulnerable to lies
Our evidence for this claim comes from multiple studies that were taken by a few thousand people.
In one study, we found that people who tend to be more emotional — put simply, people who have more feelings, both positive or negative — are more likely to believe fake news headlines. In fact, more emotional people are more likely to fall for fake news regardless of whether it is consistent or inconsistent with their political ideology.
We also found that when people are in an emotional mindset (regardless of how emotional they typically report being in the first place), they exhibit increased belief in fake news. So, even if you aren't typically a very emotional person, you may still be led astray.
You might be wondering why fake news appeals to our emotions. The answer is frustratingly simple. Fake news is created to catch your attention.
Previous research has shown that false claims on Twitter spread more quickly and widely than similar true claims. In a world flooded with information, people who lie have an easier time getting our attention. One tried, tested and true way to do so is to appeal to their emotions.
Let's consider an example. There was a post widely shared on Facebook detailing how, at an amusement park in Ontario, a young child was (supposedly) abducted and then later recovered with a shaved head and in different clothes. Fact-checkers, however, were able to confirm that no such thing happened! It was a hoax, one that provokes immediate emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, disgust, sadness.
The role of emotion in believing fake news is important knowledge to keep in mind during this year's election and beyond. Knowing how people construct fake news with the goal of deceiving us should help us spot it.
Next time you see a news headline that is particularly emotionally striking — it makes you fearful, or angry, or jubilant, or sad — remember that these are the tools that are used to grab your attention.
Google is your friend. Use it to see if the emotionally provocative claim is being reported and corroborated from other sources. Often, the specific claim will have already been fact-checked by third-party organizations (such as the fake child abduction claim). In such cases, the fact-check is often at the very top of the Google search results.
People who shared the amusement park abduction story were around 0.34 seconds away from discovering the fact-check on Google. Emotions are a hell of a drug.
Most importantly, what this means is that we have to stop and think about what we see on social media and elsewhere. This is most important when you find yourself in a situation where your brain is likely to act without first fact-checking. When you see a news headline that makes you feel something either very good or very bad, make sure it isn't too good, or too bad, to be true.
Fake news is created with the goal of convincing your emotions to betray you. Don't let it.
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