Fake News and the People Who Share It
The R Street Institute will be highlighting various cutting-edge studies from the Knight Research Network and a broader network of scholars, providing a series of “translations” to help the policy community use academic insights to create better legislation and achieve optimal policy outcomes.
One of the areas we will examine is misinformation and disinformation—specifically, the debate concerning “fake news” and the people who share it. Recent studies, such as one that examined fake news sharing on Twitter during the 2016 election cycle and another that looked at fake news dissemination on Facebook in that same period, have found that conservatives share more misinformation than liberals.
However, certain people may be more likely to share news on social media in the first place based on their level of conscientiousness. A conscientious person is “good at self-regulation and impulse control” and adheres to “norms and rules,” while an individual with low conscientiousness has less self-control and behaves with greater impulsivity.
A 2021 study by M. Asher Lawson and Hemant Kakkar found that conservatives with low conscientiousness were most likely to share fake news. A new paper by Hause Lin, David Rand and Gordon Pennycook lends fresh eyes to these findings. After reanalyzing the data and devising five new experimental replications, they failed to replicate the previous results—leaving Lawson and Kakkar’s claim unsupported.
Additionally, Lin et al. found that low-conscientiousness conservatives are not necessarily more likely to share fake news—they are actually more likely to share any news, real or fake, than high-conscientiousness conservatives or liberals of any type.
This study’s findings “highlight the importance of distinguishing between overall sharing tendencies and the sharing of fake news or misinformation.” This distinction is significant when it comes to combating the spread of fake news because it gives specific insight into the political ideologies and personalities of people who spread misinformation. This kind of analysis is important to policymakers seeking to mitigate fake news dissemination.
Both studies set out to determine factors that may influence individuals to share misinformation. Do conservatives or liberals behave more responsibly on social media? Does an individual’s level of conscientiousness play a role?
One lesson we can learn from Lin et al. is to refrain from assuming which political ideology and/or personality type is more likely to share fake news. Such assumptions could lead to unnecessary interventions against particular subsets of people. Therefore, more research is needed to determine whether conservatives or liberals have a greater proclivity to spread untrue material.
R Street, supported by the Knight Foundation and its network of scholars, will continue to examine the relationship between political ideology, personality and the sharing of fake news. Perhaps both conservatives and liberals are guilty of sharing misinformation, and perhaps certain traits drive this, but additional research is needed before any definitive claims can be made.