Why are we susceptible to online misinformation?

Why are we susceptible to online misinformation?

By: rajeswari parasa&
urva kapoor&
July 31 2023

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Why are we susceptible to online misinformation?

Source: Freepik.com

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Might sound like a cliche but doesn’t this hold true given the onslaught of mis/disinformation in today’s time? Mis/disinformation has led to – lynchings, violence, riots, and even sexual assault. 

Ranging from the 2021 Capitol Hill riots in the U.S. that were fueled by rumors that the presidential elections were rigged to a mob sexual assaulting women in the northeast Indian state of Manipur stemming from a desire for revenge, misinformation has resulted in violence and atrocities worldwide. 

While these trends highlight how detrimental mis/disinformation is, an effective way to tackle the spread is to understand why people are susceptible to it. 

A 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  study found that false news spreads faster on Twitter than real news. One of the co-authors, MIT Professor Sinan Aral said, “We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude.”

Explaining novelty hypothesis, Aral said, “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information.”

Why is misinformation easy to believe?

Experts say that misinformation aligns with popular beliefs or notions, making it easier for individuals to accept without challenging their existing cognition. Cognitive biases such as attribution bias and error, black and white thinking, overgeneralization, and self-fulfilling prophecy support the acceptance of fake news, according to psychologist Dr. Pragya Rashmi.

"Cognitive dissonance plays a role in people's resistance to fact-checks that challenge their beliefs, leading them to avoid engaging with information that contradicts their preconceived notions,” Rashmi said. 

According to Rashmi, the more convincing the presentation of the data, the more likely individuals are to believe it. Humans are conditioned to accept the written word, associating it with knowledge and credibility. Rashmi says finding ways to present fact checks in a visually appealing and credible manner can enhance their reception and shares among readers.

Why do we fall for mis/disinformation?

Founder-director of Hyderabad Academy of Psychology Dr. Diana Monterio told Logically Facts that confirmation bias enables individuals to believe false information and stick to it.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to align with the information that suits a person's pre-existing beliefs or ideologies.

“Attitudes of people who believe in fake news are similar to attitudes about patriarchy, gender. We can't change them overnight as they have their own confirmation bias. When I am looking for something that I desperately want to happen or believe and if it aligns with my existing beliefs, I will automatically believe it,” says Monterio. 

An article published on The Conversation in 2018 talks about three types of biases that makes users vulnerable to mis/disinformation. 

  • Cognitive biases: It originates from how the brain processes a certain information. For example: People tend to get affected by emotional headlines, irrespective of their accuracy. 
  • Societal biases: The tendency to view information favorably when it comes from one’s “echo chamber.”
  • Algorithmic biases: Platforms use algorithms to determine what people see online. This might end up reinforcing cognitive and societal biases.

Monterio said that mis/disinformation intrigues emotional aspects of the public as it often inculcates feelings of fear, shock or surprise. 

A study titled “Who falls for fake news? Psychological and clinical profiling evidence of fake news consumers,” mentions that individuals who do not effectively detect fake news tend to have higher levels of anxiety, both state and trait anxiety. “These individuals are also highly suggestible and tend to seek strong emotions,” according to the study.

The way forward 

Increasing media literacy skills and optimizing the use of technology can help combat mis/disinformation, according to International Fact Checking Network’s community and impact manager Enock Nyariki.

“To effectively combat misinformation, a comprehensive strategy is required. This includes arming the public with media literacy skills, forging partnerships with all major social media platforms, and ensuring our fact-checking processes continue to be both transparent and engaging,” Nyariki said. “We must harness technology to enhance our efforts. The importance of public awareness campaigns cannot be overstated, nor can the need for robust support for fact-checkers. Expanding our fact-checking efforts to cover different languages and cultures is an essential part of the solution.”

A survey conducted by Logically Facts between March and April this year produced results which support Nyariki’s argument. We surveyed over 6,000 people in the U.S., U.K., and India, and found nearly 66 percent of people willing to learn more on spotting false claims and digital literacy.  Nearly 71 percent trusted technology to be a part of the solution, albeit with human expertise.

So, while our belief system and emotions play a crucial role in why we tend to trust online misinformation; use of technology, media literacy, and transparency in fact-checking can help overcome the challenge.

If you’re looking for online resources on media literacy, you could consider starting here: 

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before