Why Do People Believe in Fake News Even After Reading Fact-Checks?

Researchers found that if a message is considered persuasive, it doesn’t trigger doubt in the mind of the recipient.

Divya Chandra
A study found that due to the access and exposure to fact-checks, a reduction in sharing of alt-facts was witnessed by 26-31 percent.
A study found that due to the access and exposure to fact-checks, a reduction in sharing of alt-facts was witnessed by 26-31 percent.
(Photo: Shruti Mathur/The Quint)


Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Illustrations: Erum Gour

“Hey, those images of Indian soldiers killed in Galwan Valley are old and not related to the present incident,” I told one of my friends who had shared unrelated images on her Instagram account.

“Nevertheless, people need to know that an incident like that happened,” the friend replied, refusing to take down the photos or add context to it.

On the other hand, another friend accepted that she disseminated fake news when the facts were presented to her and immediately issued a correction on the misleading post.

In both the cases, evidence was provided along with fact-checked stories, but the two people reacted differently.

Let’s explore the reason behind this difference.

In the current times, when things are so “unpredictable and negative,” people tend to get dissuaded with all kinds of information, Havovi Hyderabadwalla, clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder at Mind Mandala told The Quint.

“We sort of get addicted to the negative media. So, even if I am being told that I am wrong, you kind of get dissuaded because of the content,” Hyderabadwalla said.

A New Yorker article published in 2017 mentioned that Stanford researchers noted even after the evidence “for their beliefs have been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.”

Now, let’s look at why people do not alter their beliefs even after being exposed to evidences.

Kamna Chhibber, a clinical psychologist and head of mental health, department of mental health and behavioural science, Fortis La Femme, said that it depends on how strongly one believes or has an opinion on that particular piece of information.

“So, when somebody comes with a very strong belief system and a pre-existing thought process, then, of course, it is very hard for them to just accept that the information they have been believing is completely untrue.”
Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Fortis La Femme
(Photo: Aroop Mishra/ The Quint)

‘When a Belief is Called Out, Some Take it as a Personalised Attack’

Further, while speaking to The Quint, Chhibber explained that for people who have held on to some belief for a long time, it starts becoming a part of their own sense of self.

“When something gets very closely associated with your own sense of self, and when another person disputes it, it almost feels as though it is a very personalised attack, and people are not necessarily able to segregate that,” she added.

Describing the consequences of what people see as a personalised attack, she said that then they find it harder to let go of it and hold on to it even more strongly, “become defensive and offensive to protect their viewpoints.”

How Much Do Fact-Checks Actually Help?

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organisation based in Washington, conducted a research by surveying nearly 500 Americans and classified the people under different categories:

  1. Informed: People who were confident about a particular fact

  2. Uninformed: People who know that they do not have the complete facts

  3. Misinformed: People who are confident that they knows the facts but are actually mistaken

  4. Ambiguously informed: People who admitted that they were only guessing and were not sure about the facts

The study observed that the “informed” ones were the most likely to be “informed” even after going through a fact-check, while the “misinformed” ones were “the least helped by reading a fact-check.”

Further, the study mentioned that the “misinformed” people, even after reading a fact check, “are still more likely than not to choose the incorrect answer about the fact in question.”

While all the other categories were less likely to go for an incorrect response.

Misinformation vs Disinformation: How Likely Are You to Comply?

As the coronavirus outbreak gripped the world in early 2020, there was an upsurge in misinformation pertaining to its origin, causes, possible cures and effects, that kept the fact-checkers on their toes.

Regarding the impact of virality of the content, Havovi Hyderabadwalla said, “If a person has received an image or a video from ten different people, maybe their own opinion is that ten people cannot be wrong. But they don’t realise that, in current times, ten people can be wrong because information is being spread really really fast.”

A Harvard study asked citizens of the US, UK, Netherlands and Germany to tell the extent to which they experienced misinformation or disinformation regarding COVID-19.

Misinformation is when people share information without knowing what they are sharing is inaccurate, while disinformation is sharing misleading content intentionally.

“Those who experienced misinformation were willing to seek further information and to comply with official guidelines. Individuals perceiving more disinformation – on the other hand – were less willing to seek additional information and reported lower willingness to comply with official guidelines,” the study noted.

Commenting on the results of this study, Chhibber said, “This makes sense because your intent will come from a belief system. When you already have a pre-existing thought process and then you are intentionally putting forth certain information because you believe it will lead to certain behaviour on the part of others around you, and you are doing this in a very conscious and intentional way, of course , your resistance for modifying it, is going to be very very high.”

High Trust Factor Leads to More Misinformation on WhatsApp

In this year’s edition of 'Global Fact 7' conference organised by the International Fact-Checking Network, Edwin Tallam, PhD candidate, Moi University mentioned that “close working relationships” are seen on WhatsApp.

While elaborating on his research on ‘Elements influencing trust in online news consumption in Kenya,’ he said, “When it comes to WhatsApp, it means that young people in this context have the contacts and put out a close working relationship with the contacts and because of that, when it comes to sharing information, they tend to trust information shared by, maybe, very close friends within their WhatsApp groups and even directly through WhatsApp messaging application as compared to information received through other public platforms.”

Commenting on Edwin’s study, Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, visiting assistant professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said that the findings also demonstrate that people trust each other more than they trust media and social institutions.

Meanwhile, corroborating with the findings, Ritvvij Parrikh, Knight fellow with the International Centre for Journalists, in his own research on ‘Understanding cognition and how it makes misinformation persuasive in WhatsApp,’ co-authored by Nidhi Nair and Shubham Dwivedi, found that the trust of the sender in the recipient gets transferred to the message.

“Every time a message comes and the recipient of the message trusts the sender, the message is seen as more trustworthy,” he said.

He further mentioned that cognition happens in stages and if a message is considered persuasive, it does not trigger doubt in the mind of the recipient.

(Photo: Aroop Mishra/ The Quint)

Sharing Alternative Facts Post Reading Fact-Checks

In 2017, Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to US President Donald Trump had made use of the term “alternative facts” which are basically false or misleading statements.

A study titled ‘Checking and Sharing Alt-Facts’ co-authored by Emeric Henry, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, and Sergei Guriev, noted that only 10.2 percent of the respondents who were exposed to fact-checked information (imposed fact-check), shared alt-facts.

The study was divided into different kinds of treatment such as:

  1. Voluntary Fact Check: Respondents were given the choice of reading or not reading fact-checked information and 10.8 percent of them shared alt-facts
  2. Alt-Facts: Respondents were neither shown the fact-checked content nor were given a choice to read it. 14.7 percent of the group were found sharing alt-facts
Source: Checking and Sharing Alt-Facts co-authored by Emeric Henry, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, and Sergei Guriev.(Graphic: The Quint)

In totality, the study concluded that the access and exposure to fact-checked content, resulted in a reduction in sharing of alt-facts by 26 to 31 percent.

(You can read all our coronavirus related fact-checked stories here.)

(Not convinced of a post or information you came across online and want it verified? Send us the details on Whatsapp at 9643651818, or e-mail it to us at webqoof@thequint.com and we'll fact-check it for you. You can also read all our fact-checked stories here.)

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Published: 01 Jul 2020,07:09 AM IST