Saskatchewan·Analysis

Knowing how fake news preys on your emotions can help you spot it

Canadians should be wary of being exposed to fake and misleading news, particularly on social media.

Fake news is created with the goal of convincing your emotions to betray you. Don't let it

With an election on the horizon, Canadians should be vigilant about the possibility of fake news being shared on social media. (Shutterstock / LP2 Studio)

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.

A basic Google search reveals that a viral story about a child being abducted at an Ontario amusement park was completely false. (Google)

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.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

Read more about what we're looking for here, then email sask-opinion-grp@cbc.ca with your idea.

About the Author

Gordon Pennycook (Hill/Levene Schools of Business, University of Regina), Cameron Martel (Department of Psychology, Yale University) and David Rand (Sloan School of Management, MIT) study fake news.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.