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Wednesday, November 1, 2023

People believe misinformation is a threat because they assume others are gullible

Altay, S., & Acerbi, A. (2023).
New Media & Society, 0(0).


Alarmist narratives about the flow of misinformation and its negative consequences have gained traction in recent years. If these fears are to some extent warranted, the scientific literature suggests that many of them are exaggerated. Why are people so worried about misinformation? In two pre-registered surveys conducted in the United Kingdom (Nstudy_1 = 300, Nstudy_2 = 300) and replicated in the United States (Nstudy_1 = 302, Nstudy_2 = 299), we investigated the psychological factors associated with perceived danger of misinformation and how it contributes to the popularity of alarmist narratives on misinformation. We find that the strongest, and most reliable, predictor of perceived danger of misinformation is the third-person effect (i.e. the perception that others are more vulnerable to misinformation than the self) and, in particular, the belief that “distant” others (as opposed to family and friends) are vulnerable to misinformation. The belief that societal problems have simple solutions and clear causes was consistently, but weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Other factors, like negative attitudes toward new technologies and higher sensitivity to threats, were inconsistently, and weakly, associated with perceived danger of online misinformation. Finally, we found that participants who report being more worried about misinformation are more willing to like and share alarmist narratives on misinformation. Our findings suggest that fears about misinformation tap into our tendency to view other people as gullible.

My thoughts:

The authors conducted a study in the United Kingdom. They found that people who believed that others were more gullible than themselves were also more likely to perceive misinformation as a threat. This relationship was independent of other factors such as people's political beliefs, media consumption habits, and trust in institutions.

The authors argue that this finding suggests that people's concerns about misinformation may be rooted in their own biases about the intelligence and critical thinking skills of others. They also suggest that this bias may make people more likely to share and spread misinformation themselves.

The authors conclude by calling for more research on the role of bias in people's perceptions of misinformation. They also suggest that interventions to reduce misinformation should address people's biases about the gullibility of others.

One implication of this research is that people who are concerned about misinformation should be mindful of their own biases. It is important to remember that everyone is vulnerable to misinformation, regardless of their intelligence or education level. We should all be critical of the information we encounter online and be careful about sharing things that we are not sure are true.