To be clear, existing research has shown that conservatives are more prone to misinformation than liberals. For example, during the 2016 election, people with conservative leanings were more likely to engage and share misinformation on Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, in the early months of the pandemic, conservatives were more likely to believe Covid-19 was a hoax and to downplay the severity of the virus.
However, since conservatism has always been associated with respect for tradition, authority and social institutions, we felt that ideology alone could not explain the spread of fake news. We decided to investigate the role that personality traits might play, focusing our research on conscientiousness – the tendency to regulate one’s own behavior by being less impulsive and more orderly, diligent and cautious. Our presumption was that less conscientious conservatives would be more prone to spreading fake news and that there would be no difference between very conscientious conservatives and their liberal counterparts.
We tested these hypotheses in eight experimental studies with a sample size of more than 4,600 participants in total. In each study, participants reported their political ideology and answered several questions rating their tendency to be conscientious on a five-point scale. They were then exposed to a series of fake and real news headlines – a mix of neutral, conservative or liberal leanings in their news content – and were asked to indicate their willingness to share this news with others. .
We found that low-conscience liberals, high-conscience liberals, and high-conscience conservatives each expressed willingness to share fake news stories to a similar degree – relatively low. The LCCs stood out: on average, they were 2.5 times more likely to share misinformation than the combined averages of the other three groups. In other words, it was the combination of conservatism and low conscience that resulted in the greatest likelihood of sharing misinformation.
We also wanted to understand what, exactly, drives LCCs to spread misinformation. For example, in one of the studies, we asked participants to report their inclinations on a range of potential influences: level of support for Trump, time spent on social media, distrust of mainstream media and endorsement of conservative social and economic values. To our surprise, none of these factors was a reliable predictor of LCCs’ high tendency to share fake news.
Instead, using statistical analysis, we found that the only reliable explanation was a general desire for chaos – that is, a motivation to ignore, disrupt, and tear down existing social and political institutions as a means of destruction. affirm the dominance and superiority of his own. group. Participants indicated their appetite for chaos by using a scale to express how much they agreed with statements such as “I think society should be burned to the ground.” For LCCs, we concluded, sharing false information is a way to spread chaos.
Can LCCs be prevented from sharing falsehoods? One of the most common measures to combat misinformation is to use accurate messaging or fact-checking interventions, which have been shown to reduce the sharing of misinformation. Unfortunately, in two studies we found that fact-checking warnings were inadequate: LCCs continued to share fake news at a higher rate than liberals and high-conscience conservatives, despite being told that the news was inaccurate.
This is a worrying finding. At the same time, our research broadly suggests a way forward. First, those seeking to combat fake news online can now target their interventions at a smaller subset of the population: LCCs. More targeted approaches have proven effective in influencing individual behavior in the past.
Second, our research clearly shows that anyone trying to achieve CCL must experiment with interventions that go beyond fact-checking. We believe the responsibility lies primarily with social media companies. There is ample evidence that a user’s personality and political ideology can be inferred based on their social media activity. If these companies can identify LCCs, it means they can also be proactive in ensuring that LCCs are presented with reliable information, not falsehoods.
Misinformation is a serious threat to American democracy that deserves serious attention. But we have to be smart about how we fight the spread of misinformation. While our research won’t provide all the answers, it can help focus those efforts and, in doing so, should deflect blame from conservatives who don’t share misinformation.