What journalists need to know about the psychology behind disinformation

Journalists are amid a perfect storm of disinformation, threats to their work, and lagging resources to support local news outlets. Add in the essential role of journalism to defend against the erosion of our democracy, and practitioners face a critical moment to find solutions to the disinformation crisis.

Psychological scientists and journalists covering the rampant spread and impacts of disinformation shared tips and tools for journalists ahead of the midterm elections during a panel discussion hosted by the National Press Club Journalism Institute on Sept. 23. Here are some highlights: 

What disinformation research shows

  • People tend to spread information — or disinformation — that affirms their beliefs or identities. It’s often good news about their “side.” However, research shows that one of the most powerful ways to go viral is to share negative information about the “other” group they’re not aligned with. 
  • Beliefs are very closely tied to identity within a community, and people are more likely to believe misinformation that comes from people within their circles. Traditional fact-checking typically doesn’t change identity-based beliefs. 
  • An individual’s level of anxiety can magnify the belief in and spread of disinformation. If someone feels uncertain or fearful for reasons completely unrelated to the piece of news, they are more likely to pay attention to and believe that information because it’s consistent with emotions they feel at the time. 
  • Anxiety plays a huge role in the phenomenon of selective exposure: Anything that introduces a threat to an individual’s identity will instigate them to seek comforting, congenial information as opposed to anything going against ideas they already hold. 
  • Individuals are equally susceptible to believing disinformation, regardless of political leaning. However, research shows that Republicans are far more likely to share disinformation. Although a small number of people generate most disinformation, it gets distributed widely because it is congruent or aligns with an individual’s partisan identity, and people want to belong.

“There are a lot of people just spreading misinformation, and they might be doing it unintentionally. They might falsely believe it because they’ve been on a diet of misinformation for so long,” said Jay Van Bavel, director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab at New York University. “So those are people who are probably susceptible. They probably need to be addressed differently from the people who are like, you know, Russia spreading misinformation, disinformation.  … There’s a whole other group of people that … just need help getting good information and have been misled.”

Get the definitions of disinformation and misinformation here

3 influences on the spread of disinformation in the American political media ecosystem

  1. Language and modeling from authority figures that affirms conspiratorial communities and disinformation are then amplified by a group of people around the authority figures or other “elites”. People look to these leaders to determine what to believe, but also whether it’s valuable to spread that information. Thus, to be a loyal party member or to show trust in their leader, a person is more likely to amplify and spread disinformation.
  2. Social and societal norms pressure individual action. A person is much more likely to share something that they are not sure about if they think it’s okay either to get it wrong or if they think it signals that they are a good party member in their community. 
  3. Certain media ecosystems that hammer home themes that align with current conspiracies and disinformation make the lies easier to believe. Even a fairly rational person, if they hear the same thing over and over, may believe it seems more true.

Read next: How journalists can address disinformation in their work.

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