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People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are gullible


Altay, Sacha; Acerbi, Alberto (2023). People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are gullible. New Media & Society:Epub ahead of print.

Abstract

Alarmist narratives about the flow of misinformation and its negative consequences have gained traction in recent years. If these fears are to some extent warranted, the scientific literature suggests that many of them are exaggerated. Why are people so worried about misinformation? In two pre-registered surveys conducted in the United Kingdom ( N$_{study_1}$ = 300, N$_{study_2}$ = 300) and replicated in the United States ( N$_{study_1}$ = 302, N$_{study_2}$ = 299), we investigated the psychological factors associated with perceived danger of misinformation and how it contributes to the popularity of alarmist narratives on misinformation. We find that the strongest, and most reliable, predictor of perceived danger of misinformation is the third-person effect (i.e. the perception that others are more vulnerable to misinformation than the self) and, in particular, the belief that “distant” others (as opposed to family and friends) are vulnerable to misinformation. The belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes was consistently, but weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Other factors, like negative attitudes toward new technologies and higher sensitivity to threats, were inconsistently, and weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Finally, we found that participants who report being more worried about misinformation are more willing to like and share alarmist narratives on misinformation. Our findings suggest that fears about misinformation tap into our tendency to view other people as gullible.

Abstract

Alarmist narratives about the flow of misinformation and its negative consequences have gained traction in recent years. If these fears are to some extent warranted, the scientific literature suggests that many of them are exaggerated. Why are people so worried about misinformation? In two pre-registered surveys conducted in the United Kingdom ( N$_{study_1}$ = 300, N$_{study_2}$ = 300) and replicated in the United States ( N$_{study_1}$ = 302, N$_{study_2}$ = 299), we investigated the psychological factors associated with perceived danger of misinformation and how it contributes to the popularity of alarmist narratives on misinformation. We find that the strongest, and most reliable, predictor of perceived danger of misinformation is the third-person effect (i.e. the perception that others are more vulnerable to misinformation than the self) and, in particular, the belief that “distant” others (as opposed to family and friends) are vulnerable to misinformation. The belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes was consistently, but weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Other factors, like negative attitudes toward new technologies and higher sensitivity to threats, were inconsistently, and weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Finally, we found that participants who report being more worried about misinformation are more willing to like and share alarmist narratives on misinformation. Our findings suggest that fears about misinformation tap into our tendency to view other people as gullible.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Political Science
Dewey Decimal Classification:320 Political science
Scopus Subject Areas:Social Sciences & Humanities > Communication
Social Sciences & Humanities > Sociology and Political Science
Uncontrolled Keywords:Alarmist, fake news, misinformation, moral panic, new technologies, simple solutions, third-person effect, trust in news
Language:English
Date:17 February 2023
Deposited On:04 Jan 2024 10:23
Last Modified:10 Apr 2024 08:29
Publisher:Sage Publications
ISSN:1461-4448
OA Status:Closed
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448231153379