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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dolores Albarracín, Alexandra Heyman Nash University professor; Director, Social Action Lab; Director, Science of Science Communication Division, Annenberg Public Policy Center
- Tiffany Hsu, reporter on the technology team covering misinformation and disinformation, New York Times
- Jay Van Bavel, Director, Social Identity & Morality Lab and Associate professor of psychology and neural science, New York University
- Anya van Wagtendonk, misinformation reporter, Grid
- Moderator: Summer Lopez, chief program officer, free expression, PEN America
Resources shared included:
- Hard News: Journalists and the Threat of Disinformation, PEN America
- Using psychological science to fight misinformation: A guide for journalists, American Psychological Association
- Resources on misinformation and disinformation, American Psychological Association
- Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America
- Jay Van Bavel’s account of his experience as the target of a coordinated misinformation attack
- Creating Conspiracy Beliefs: How Our Thoughts Are Shaped, Dolores Albarracin’s book reporting a number of studies on conservative media and anxiety
- Debunking Handbook, George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication
- Resources from APA on the psychology of misinformation, https://www.apa.org/topics/journalism-facts/misinformation-disinformation
- Misplaced trust: When trust in science fosters belief in pseudoscience and the benefits of critical evaluation, a Journal of Experimental Social Psychology paper on the importance of making the audience critical in reducing vulnerability to conspiracy beliefs
- The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony, Jay Van Bavel’s trade book on the role of social identity or partisanship in what people believe (or disbelieve)
- The Media Manipulation Casebook, Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Study
- The Journalist’s Resource, misinformation tools, Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Study
- On Latinos, Misinformation and Uncertainty: New Polling Insights, Equis Research & Equis Institute
- Election Communications Toolkit, a partnership between the National Association of State Election Directors and National Association for Media Literacy Education
- When Teens Find Misinformation, These Teachers Are Ready, Tiffany Hsu’s recent piece on media literacy
- The “Bad News Game,” an interactive game on manipulating facts
- “Facts in a Time of Fiction: Reporting the truth amid lies and disinformation,” a National Press Club Institute program with New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson New York Times journalist Elizabeth Williamson about covering Alex Jones & conspiracy theories
- Viral Rumor Rundown, the News Literacy Project’s blog with curated examples of viral rumors published with insights and takeaways to help people learn to recognize and avoid misinformation
- Jay Van Bavel’s twitter thread summarizing a massive new study on what works in fostering greater support for democracy.
- An interview with Joan Donovan about her research on manipulation of videos and images from the Russia-Ukraine conflict on social media and how to identify propaganda.
If you have questions about this program, please email National Press Club Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos at [email protected].
The National Press Club Journalism Institute promotes an engaged global citizenry through an independent and free press, and equips journalists with skills and standards to inform the public in ways that inspire a more representative democracy. As the non-profit affiliate of the National Press Club, the Institute powers journalism in the public interest.
The American Psychological Association is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 133,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members.
About PEN America
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
I appreciate the replay and learned a lot from it. Thank you for sharing..