Pandemic, war and elections: Millions of new videos, articles or posts appear on the web and in chat groups every day, including a lot of misinformation. What are the reasons why people fall for it?
BERLIN – It’s an assertion that has been haunting social networks and private messaging services since the last federal election and is still being shared: then-chancellorship candidate and current Foreign Minister Annalena Barbock allegedly wanted to prevent Germans from taking their pets. You’re considering a carbon dioxide tax on dogs and cats to reduce emissions.
This is nonsense — or more realistically: fake news, any deliberately misleading claim that is deliberately spread to discredit the green politician. In a report recently published by the Research Center in Rome, the authors describe the “collective inability to distinguish between fact and fiction” as “the most important challenge of our time.”
In democratic societies, disinformation and misinformation have been curbed, at least to a certain extent, by the media, according to the Land for All Report. “But social media has shattered that model. It has spawned an entire industry of disinformation and disinformation, polarizing communities, distrusting, and our inability to work together, or each other, in the face of collective challenges only to communicate basic facts.”
But what makes fake news so successful?
“The reason people believe misinformation is because they want to believe it,” says political and data scientist Joseph Holenberger. “Because he offers them someone to blame, or because they think their political position is the right one.” This goes to the extent that some people often share misinformation even if it has already been refuted.
Such misinformation is immediately picked up and discussed by a number of users on the Internet. In the digital age, where everyone’s voice can be heard, hard facts are very hard to come by. The reasons for this include anger and anger, Holenberger says. “Messages that anger people are more likely to be sent or posted on social media.”
People want to do something about the alleged violations and are therefore more likely to share such messages. On the other hand, believing facts or clarifying misinformation – the so-called fact-checking – reach far fewer people because they rarely irritate or energize anyone. Some psychological and algorithmic influences, Holenberger says, offer a kind of home advantage for disinformation.
As tech blogger Ben Thompson described this phenomenon a few years ago, “Force has shifted from the supply side to the demand side.” In other words, the message reaching many people no longer depends on who is spreading it, but on how many people want to hear it and pass it on.
A thesis confirmed by media culture scholar Martin Doll: “The technical mechanisms of social media platforms are characterized by a preference for the posts that elicit the most reactions.” This ensures that the impact of the news is amplified – especially in the case of incorrect information.
Motivational background is often destabilizing
According to experts, political or economic intentions are usually behind this. Current example: fakes about the war in Ukraine. “Often the main driver here is destabilization—that is, spreading chaos, distrust and the like,” Holenberger says. Indeed, some of the theses spread contradict each other. “For example, in the early days of the war, we repeatedly saw misinformation that Russia had never invaded Ukraine. But at the same time, it was also said that Russia had a good reason to invade.”
The purpose of contradictory fake news is to flood users with so much false information that the truth and facts almost disappear next to it. “After all, you have a lot of alternative hypotheses that you start to believe,” Holenberger says. In addition, the reliability of the existing media should be undermined.
According to a survey conducted by Vodafone in the summer of 2021, it is people 50+ who often view and share misinformation. If you ask them how often they encounter fake news, they often won’t be able to answer. Among other things, because they do not see what they read and see it as a lie, but as information.
Therefore, according to experts, it is important that the private environment – friends, acquaintances or work colleagues – conflict in such cases. “People affected by misinformation often believe that the silent majority agree with them, or that everyone else might think so,” Holenberger explains. This worldview must be shaken. “The personal environment has the most reach compared to large media outreach campaigns.” In this context, the work of fact-checkers is also useful. “These are exactly the platforms that flag false information in their environment.”