Whether it’s anti-vaccination messages or lies about the 2020 election, it’s easy to blame conservatives or Republicans as a group for spreading misinformation, as many in press and academia did. But this message is too simplistic, and anyone who wants to fight back against the very real scourge of fake news in American politics should take a closer look.
In a recently published study, we found that not conservatives as a whole tend to spread false information, but a small part of them, which also has two psychological traits in common: a low level of conscientiousness and a tendency to chaos. Importantly, we found that several other factors we tested, including support for former President Donald Trump, had an impact. No predict propensity to share misinformation reliably.
Our findings show that blaming disinformation on the political right is broadly wrong—in fact, it can lead to increased polarization. Instead, it would be more productive for researchers, social media platforms, politicians, and media personalities to focus their efforts, in particular, on conservatives with low conscience (NCC for short). However, our findings also showed that fact checking is not an effective way to stop these conservatives from spreading false news, which means other interventions are needed.
To be clear, existing research has shown that conservatives have a greater propensity for misinformation than liberals. For example, during the 2016 election, people who leaned towards conservatism were more likely to engage with and share disinformation. Twitter and facebook. Similarly, in the early months of the pandemic, conservatives were more likely to believe Covid-19 was a scam, and downplay the severity of the virus.
However, given that conservatism has historically been associated with respect for tradition, authority, and social institutions, we conclude that ideology alone cannot explain the spread of fake news. We decided to explore the role traits can play by focusing our research on conscientiousness – the tendency to regulate one’s own behavior being less impulsive and more orderly, diligent and prudent. We assumed that lower conscientious conservatives would be more likely to spread fake news and that there would be no difference between conscientious conservatives and their liberal counterparts.
We tested these hypotheses in eight experimental studies with a total sample size of more than 4600 participants. In each study, participants reported on their political ideology and answered several questions, evaluating their propensity for conscientiousness on a five-point scale. They were then introduced to a series of fake and real news headlines—a mix of neutral, conservative, or liberal news content—and asked to express their willingness to share the news with other people.
We found that low conscientious liberals, high conscientious liberals, and high conscientious conservatives expressed their willingness to share fake news articles to the same—relatively small—degree. LCCs stood out: on average, they were 2.5 times more likely to share misinformation than the averages of the other three groups. In other words, it was the combination of conservatism and low integrity that made disinformation most likely to spread.
We also wanted to understand what exactly drives the LCC to spread misinformation. For example, in one study, we asked participants to report their propensity for a range of potential influences: Trump’s level of support, time spent on social media, distrust of mainstream media, and support for conservative social and economic values. To our surprise, none of these factors was a reliable predictor of the LCC’s increased propensity to spread false news.
Instead, using statistical analysis, we found that the only reliable explanation was the general desire for chaos — that is, the motivation to ignore, destroy, and destroy existing social and political institutions as a means of asserting the dominance and superiority of one’s own group. The members expressed their appetite for chaos, using the scale to express how much they agree with statements such as “I think society should be burned to the ground”. We concluded that for the LCC, the exchange of false information is a means of spreading chaos.
Can fake LCC messages be prevented from spreading? One of the most common measures to combat disinformation is the use of accurate messaging or fact checkingthat were shown reduce the spread of disinformation. Unfortunately, in two studies, we found that fact-check warnings were inadequate: LCCs continued to share fake news at a faster rate than liberals and conscientious conservatives, despite being told the news was inaccurate.
This is a disturbing conclusion. At the same time, our study as a whole suggests a way forward. First, those who seek to combat online misinformation can now target a smaller subset of the population: the LCC. More targeted approaches have shown their effectiveness influence on past behavior.
Second, our research clearly shows that anyone trying to achieve LCC needs to experiment with interventions that go beyond fact checking. We believe that the responsibility lies primarily with social media companies. There is plenty of evidence that user identity and political ideology can be concluded based on their activity in social networks. If these companies can identify LCCs, this means that they can also actively ensure that LCCs are presented as true and not false information.
Disinformation is a serious threat to American democracy that deserves serious attention. But we need to be smart about countering the spread of fake news. While our research does not answer all questions, it can help narrow the focus of these efforts and, in the process, shift blame away from those conservatives who do not share disinformation.