Reasons for Spreading Misinformation

The ease of creating and spreading false information has led to an unprecedented rise in misinformation regarding its scope and impact. Vosoughi et al. (2018) characterize misinformation as the process of producing inaccurate information that distorts the perception of the correct information and influences people’s decisions and actions. During emergencies, including a pandemic, a catastrophe, or a military conflict, the problem of misinformation is especially acute, which fills the information space, including social networks and the media. Thus, in conditions of social instability, there is an increase in misinformation, the reason for the spread of which is consistent with the worldview, the desire for belonging, the effects of illusory truth and primacy, and its impact on emotions.

One of the psychological reasons for the spread of misinformation is its consistency with the person’s worldview. Reed (n.d.) claims that people believe what confirms their worldview. Confirmation bias is a person’s tendency to accept information confirming their beliefs and reject facts contradicting them. Ecker et al. (2022) assert that people experience an absolute pleasure when processing information that supports their ideas. When a thought becomes part of the worldview, a person tries to protect it from external influences. According to Ecker et al. (2022), a person’s mind does everything to support and agree with what was once accepted. Whatever the strength and number of the facts to the contrary, the mind either does not notice them, neglects them, or rejects them with great prejudice. As a result, the reliability of those former conclusions remains intact. Thus, when misinformation is consistent with a persons’ worldview, they believe in it.

In turn, the sociological reason for the spread of misinformation is related to the desire of a person to belong to a social group. People do not always believe things because they are true, but because it makes us look good in the eyes of significant people (Clear, n.d.). Although humans are sentient beings for whom the search for truth is meaningful, they are social animals, programmed to survive and seek safety in a group. Therefore, people tend to consume information to stay close and not conflict with other people regardless of whether it is true. Fisher (2021) emphasizes ingrouping, the belief that social identity is a source of power and superiority. In this regard, social belonging becomes more significant than truth.

The illusory truth effect is widespread in the information space. Hassan and Barber (2021) note that it is a cognitive bias in which belief in the integrity of information increases after being exposed to it multiple times. It is in line with Clear (n.d.), who argues that misinformation exists because these ideas continue to be talked about. There is a significant psychological effect that the more misinformed content is published, the more likely people are to believe it. This phenomenon is explained by the fact that already familiar information is easier to perceive and analyze. Moreover, the primacy effect facilitates the distribution and strengthening of misinformation in the mass consciousness, which consists of the tendency of a person to attach the greatest importance to information received earlier. According to Dai et al. (2021), misinformation learned in this way remains with a person for a long time and does not allow to change his views even after refuting false information. This effect is consistent with Reed’s (n.d.) belief that the information is compatible with a person’s worldview. Thus, the illusory truth effect and the primacy effect explain the reasons for the spread of misinformation.

An equally significant reason for spreading misinformation is its impact on emotions and critical thinking. Ahorsu et al. (2020) note that fakes appeal to human emotions, that is, to the irrational principle and not to logic. Fake messages often aim to evoke negative emotions that prevent the intellect from analyzing and criticizing the information. This is exacerbated in an unstable situation when a person does not have enough time and moral strength. In moments of catastrophes, a person cannot distinguish truth from lies and consumes messages literally in a split second without analyzing. Thus, misinformation is propagated by its focus on negative emotions.

The reasons for the spread of misinformation can be considered using the example of the spread of fakes related to COVID-19. The World Health Organization recognized the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus infection COVID-19 as one of the main threats to humanity in 2020, as well as the problem of massive digital misinformation (Managing the COVID-19, 2020). Various psychological effects amplify the destructive information processes associated with COVID-19. Montemurro (2020) notes that negative emotional states, anxiety, and fear contributed to spreading false reports. Furthermore, the spread and promotion of misinformation and fake news are facilitated by low levels of social trust, the polarization of society, and an increase in the prevalence of panic and anxious emotional states, which also contribute to a decrease in the level of critical thinking (Ahorsu et al., 2020). Thus, high levels of stress and fatalistic attitudes about the pandemic’s outcome reduce social media users’ ability to recognize false reports about COVID-19.

As a result of the ease with which false information may be created and circulated, misinformation has reached new levels of scope and influence. Consistency with the worldview, the desire for belonging, the effects of the illusion of truth and primacy, and its impact on emotions are critical reasons for spreading misinformation. The problem is actualized in the context of social instability associated with emergency situations, such as a pandemic and military conflicts.

References

Ahorsu, D.K., Lin, C.Y., Imani, V., Saffari, M., Griffiths, M.D., Pakpour, A.H. (2020). The fear of covid19 scale: Development and initial validation. International journal of mental health and addiction, 1–9.

The emotional impact of COVID-19: From medical staff to common people. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 87, 23-24.

Clear, J. (n.d.). Why facts don’t change our minds. James Clear.

Dai, Y., Yu, W., & Shen, F. (2021). The effects of message order and debiasing information in misinformation correction. International Journal of Communication, 15, 1039-1059.

Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Schmid, P., Fazio, L. K., Brashier, N., Kendeou, P., Vraga, E. K., & Amazeen, M. A. (2022). The psychological drivers of misinformation belief and its resistance to correction. Nature Reviews Psychology, 1, 13–29.

Fisher, M. (2021). ‘Belonging is stronger than facts’: The age of misinformation. The New York Times.

Hassan, A., & Barber, S. J. (2021). The effects of repetition frequency on the illusory truth effect. Cognitive research: Principles and Implications, 6(1), 1-12.

Montemurro, N. (2020). The emotional impact of covid-19: from medical staff to common people.

Reed, E. (n.d.). Why does misinformation spread? Human behavior plays a big part. The Boston Globe. Web.

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D.K., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359, 1146 – 1151.

WHO. (2020). Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation: Joint statement by WHO, UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, ITU, UN Global Pulse, and IFRC. 

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PsychologyWriting. "Reasons for Spreading Misinformation." April 14, 2023. https://psychologywriting.com/reasons-for-spreading-misinformation/.