Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Instance 1: A person came across a motivating story of Sudha Murty, author, philanthropist and chairperson of Infosys Foundation, selling vegetables in front of a temple once every year. They believed it.
Instance 2: Another person saw a viral video that was shared with a claim that it showed a Hindu father pleading and trying to convince his daughter against marrying a Muslim man, insinuating that it was a matter of ‘Love Jihad’. They felt angry and believed it.
Even though both the incidents are examples of misinformation, they were widely shared by thousands of social media users.
If you notice, in both the cases, there was a reliance on emotions while believing whether a piece of information was true or not.
Content Spreads Faster if it Has High Moral Emotion
A 2017 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) stated that content with the largest amount of moral-emotional language had the highest retweet rate.
In simple terms, content spreads faster when it has a high amount of moral emotion.
“These results suggest that emotion is a key component for the diffusion of moral content through social networks and that the social transmission of morality is distinct from basic emotional contagion,” the study noted.
‘Misinformation Contains Over The Top Emotional Language’
Another study conducted by MIT researchers Cameron Martel and David G. Rand and Gordon Pennycook from University of Regina, Canada, in October found that “emotion plays a causal role in people’s susceptibility to incorrectly perceiving fake news as accurate.”
Cameron Martel, PhD student at MIT who is studying misinformation and spread of false news online, told The Quint that one of the sources to consider for heightened emotion is “how much emotion the person is experiencing while encountering online content and how much they rely on emotion while determining whether or not to believe the new information.”
He further said that online misinformation often contains extreme and over the top emotional language.
“It may also be the case that highly emotional false content may even distract people from considering whether the content is accurate before believing or sharing it,” he added.
High Level of Association Between Emotion and Fake News
In order to analyse the same, participants of the study conducted by MIT researchers were asked to complete the 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule scale. Further, respondents were asked “To what extent do you feel [item-specific emotion] at this moment?” to find out their state of mood.
The study found significant correlations between experiencing emotion and believing misinformation. The belief in fake news was found to be approximately twice as high for the respondents with highest aggregated positive and negative emotion scores in comparison to participants with the lowest aggregated positive and negative emotion scores.
“Therefore, although even participants who experience high emotion are still, on average, able to discern between fake and true news, we observe notable increases in belief in fake news as emotionality increases,” the study noted.
Following is an illustration showing positive and negative emotion being associated with higher accuracy ratings for ‘fake headlines.’ However, it’s not the same correlation for ‘real headlines.’
In the illustration, the black dot size is proportional the number of observations, which means, a specific person going through a specific headline. Now, let’s consider positive emotion first. An ever increasing slope can be seen for accuracy ratings for fake headlines.
Now if we look at the same variables for real headlines, the plot is not as increasing as in the case of fake headlines, and shows slight variation in accuracy ratings as the positive emotion score increases.
In an earlier story, The Quint’s WebQoof team had reported on how the degree of belief in a fact-check is dependent on how strongly one believes or has an opinion on that particular piece of information.
Now, let’s see the difference in how likely are people to fall for fake news when they are in emotional state.
The findings of the study indicate that when the participants were in the emotional state, they assigned higher accuracy ratings to false information which means that they fell for fake news more.
On the other hand, when people were in the control and reason state, they were often found to assign low accuracy ratings to false content.
But when it comes to real news, no effect of thinking mode was noticed on perception of accuracy of real news. “All three conditions produce similar accuracy ratings of real news stories,” the study mentioned.
Why Fake News Along With Strong Emotions is More Convincing
Listing out the reasons why misinformation, accompanied by strong emotions, tends to be far more convincing than other regular content, Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist and head of mental health, department of mental health and behavioural science, Fortis Healthcare, said, “One of them relates to our own evolutionary history where we from the hunter-gatherers stage, over a period of time, have been primed to be very sensitive to information which may relate to triggering of a feared response within us or something which triggers anger within us.”
She further added, "What sensational information does is, it triggers the same mechanism, same pathways, which have previously, through our evolutionary history, been utilised to take care of our well-being, so that we are not able to ignore the signal."
Another reason, she pointed out, is our continuous exposure to strong emotions which makes us increasingly desensitised.
A study published in 2018 that was led by Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT, found that false stories inspired fear, surprise and disgust in replies, whereas “true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.”
“The emotions expressed in reply to falsehoods may illuminate additional factors, beyond novelty, that inspire people to share false news. Although we cannot claim that novelty causes retweets or that novelty is the only reason why false news is retweeted more often, we do find that false news is more novel and that novel information is more likely to be retweeted,” the study stated.
Correlation Between Anger and Spread of Fake News
Jichang Zhao from Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Big Data and Brain Computing and Yuwei Chuai from Beihang University in China, after analysing both fake and real news on Chinese social media platform Weibo, found a correlation between anger and spread of fake news.
“The easier contagion of fake news online can be causally explained by the greater anger it carries,” the study noted.
Commenting on the impact of negative emotions on the engagement of a piece of information, Chhibber said, “It is a known fact that strong negative emotions like fear, anger always tend to draw the attention of the individual more inwards and it tends to be more engaging for them from an emotional standpoint and thus it becomes very had for them to ignore the information that maybe bearing that emotional tonality to it.”
While there are numerous reasons why one would believe what they see on social media or elsewhere, one’s emotional state, and the amount and kind of emotion one is experiencing, is also a factor for the same.