Who believes fake news? Study identifies 3 groups of people

Then again, maybe the study is fake news too.

  • Recent research challenged study participants to pick real news headlines from fake ones.
  • The results showed that people prone to delusional thinking, religious fundamentalists, and dogmatists tended to believe all news, regardless of plausibility.
  • What can you do to protect yourself and others from fake news?

Did you know that in the fall of 2016, Hillary Clinton's leaked emails contained coded messages alluding to a pedophilia ring held in the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant? Or that billionaire George Soros personally funded a migrant caravan to invade the United States?

While most people would have difficulty believing these claims without more evidence, many are willing to accept them as is. "Pizzagate" has been thoroughly debunked (Comet Ping Pong doesn't even have a basement), and the individual who originally posted the migrant caravan theory admitted that he had made it up whole cloth.

Arguably, one of the most unique aspects of the 2016 election was the rise of fake news. But some of these headlines seem so obviously outside the realm of reality it's hard to see how someone could buy into them. However, recent research published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition helps to explain which groups are more prone to believing fake news and why.

Who believes in fake news?

The study focused on two key characteristics: analytical thinking and open mindedness. Analytical thinking is simply the tendency to analyze cause and effect, to consider things logically; it requires the suppression of immediate, intuitive conclusions and the use of working memory to consider an argument's premises and reach a logically sound conclusion.

Open-minded thinking is related, but slightly different. Open-minded thinkers are prone to actively searching for alternative explanations for things, and they are willing to incorporate information that challenges previously held beliefs.

We all have a greater or lesser tendency to think in these ways. But prior research has shown that these two characteristics tend to be low in three groups of people: religious fundamentalists, people prone to delusional thinking, and people prone to dogmatism (i.e., the expression of opinions and beliefs as though they were fact). Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that these three groups were the worst at distinguishing between fake and real news. Here's how they found that out.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Comet Ping Pong, the pizza shop that was the subject of a conspiracy theory regarding an alledged pedophilia ring run by democrats, including Hillary Clinton. On December 4, 2016, an armed man fired off an AR-15 inside the shop after he entered with the apparent intention to investigate the claims.

The study structure

The researchers recruited 900 people to participate in a series of empirically validated surveys. Each survey measured a different aspect involved in the study. One determined how likely a participant was to have delusional thoughts by asking questions like "Do you ever believe there is a conspiracy against you?" Other surveys determined a person's tendency to dogmatism and religious fundamentalism.

The researchers also measured open-mindedness and analytical thinking using surveys like the Cognitive Reflection Test, which asks questions with intuitive but incorrect answers, like "If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?" (The answer is 5 minutes, not 100.)

Then, the researchers presented the participants with a series of article headlines, cover images, and an abstract, much in the same way that news articles are presented on social media sites. To account for any political bias, a mix of pro-Republican and pro-Democrat news headlines were included, equally split between real and fake news.

The researchers found that individuals who scored high in religious fundamentalism, dogmatism, and delusional thinking were more likely to believe both the fake and real news headlines. What's more, they confirmed that religious fundamentalism, dogmatism, and delusional thinking were correlated with lower tendencies to analytical and open-minded thinking. On the flip side of the coin, analytical and open-minded thinking were correlated with better discrimination between real and fake news.

Bronstein et al., 2018.

Examples of fake news from the study. On the left is pro-Democrat fake news, while the right image shows pro-Republican fake news.

What can we do about this?

In a world where anybody with a Facebook account can act as their own digital publisher, these findings are troubling. What's more, one of the study's authors, Michael Bronstein, told Inverse magazine that "Research suggests that merely being exposed to fake news can increase your belief in it." When social media sites are inundated with fake news, claims that appear ludicrous at first glance become normalized.

Once an individual has come to accept a given piece of fake news as fact, they are unlikely to change their mind about it, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. In fact, doing so can strengthen their belief in the fake news article. Psychologists refer to this as the "backfire effect."

For his part, Bronstein frames this conundrum in a more positive light: "People may be able to help others avoid falling for fake news by thinking analytically about the news they share on social media, which may help them avoid inadvertently sharing fake news." He also suggests that we find "a source with a reputation for consistently and carefully vetting its stories, rather than just reading and accepting what gets shared via social media."

Careful news consumers can familiarize themselves with known fake-news websites, some of which, like NBCnews.com.co, mimic reputable sources. It can also be beneficial to use fact-checking sites like Politifact or Snopes when you come across a story that smells fishy. Unfortunately, if you plan to cite such websites to somebody sharing a story about how 53,000 dead people voted in Florida, don't be surprised if they're dismissed as "fake news."




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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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