New research accepted for publication in the American Political Science Review sheds light on the psychological factors related to sharing fake news on Twitter.
The findings indicate that people who share fake news don’t suffer from a lack of political knowledge or media literacy. Instead, the new study suggests that partisan animosity plays a key role.
“The spread of fabricated political news on social media has emerged as a major concern. We wanted to understand how big the problem is and to test competing theories of why some people fall for political fake news while others do not,” said study author Mathias Osmundsen, an assistant professor at Aarhus University.
The researchers analyzed data provided by 2,337 Twitter users, who completed an online survey between December 2018 to January 2019. The survey included assessments of a number of factors, including political knowledge, digital media literacy, cognitive reflection, and “trolling” behavior. The participants also indicated their own political leanings and how they felt about Republicans and Democrats in general.
Osmundsen and his colleagues then cross-referenced 2,709,052 tweets collected from the participants to a list of fake news and real news sources. They found that about 3% of the tweets contained links to either fake news or real news sources. But the vast majority of news linked pointed to legitimate news websites. Only about 4% of the news links — 3,269 tweets in total — pointed to fake news sources.
The researchers also examined the partisan slant of the news sources. Pro-Republican fake news was shared more often than pro-Democrat fake news. In contrast, pro-Democrat real news was shared more often than pro-Republican real news.
When it came to predictors of sharing fake news, the researchers found no significant link to cognitive reflection, political knowledge, or digital media literacy. Instead, negative feelings towards one’s political opponents was the strongest predictor of sharing fake news on Twitter. Partisan animosity was also associated with sharing real news.
“Our results suggest that while the sharing of fake news on social media is relatively rare, it is dictated by the same political motivations that drive the sharing of true news: Partisans, both Democrats and Republicans, are highly motivated to share news articles that put their political opponents in an unflattering light,” Osmundsen explained to PsyPost.
“Still, we find that Republicans end up sharing more fake news than Democrats do. Why? We propose this ‘partisan asymmetry’ arises because most mainstream media outlets publish negative news articles about the Republican Party that Democrats will find politically useful. Republicans, however, must turn to fake news publishers to find articles that satisfy their political tastes.”
“Importantly, this does not necessarily imply that mainstream media outlets suffer from a liberal bias,” Osmundsen noted. “It may also reflect a ‘reality bias’ during an unusual time in American politics (e.g., a polarizing Trump presidency).”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Our study was conducted in America among a sample of Twitter users. Future work should explore if our results generalize to other social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, YouTube) and other countries characterized by less intense political polarization and different media systems. We also only examine correlational data, meaning that we are reluctant to make strong causal claims about the effect of political motivations on fake news sharing.”
The study, “Partisan polarization is the primary psychological motivation behind political fake news sharing on Twitter“, was authored by Mathias Osmundsen, Alexander Bor, Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Bang Petersen.