Political conservatives are more likely to believe untrue news reports than liberals are, researchers reported Wednesday.
It’s the latest in a series of studies that show people on the political right tend to not only be targeted by fake news, but to believe it’s correct.
The small but intensive study, conducted by communications specialists Kelly Garrett and Robert Bond at Ohio State University, shows more engaging but false stories tended to support beliefs held by conservatives, while viral news stories that were also true tended to support beliefs held by liberals.
It does not cover the pandemic period, although the research team is running a similar study now looking at pandemic information and misinformation..
“The idea that U.S. conservatives are uniquely likely to hold misperceptions is widespread but has not been systematically assessed,” Bond and Garrett wrote in the journal Science Advances.
They came up with a system for analyzing news and social media reports, and used social media monitoring service YouGov to bounce the headlines off 1,200 volunteers who agreed to report their feelings about the reports between January and June of 2019.
“Every two weeks, we retrieved social media engagement data for 5,000 news stories that had the most engagement in the past seven days,” they wrote. Each article was carefully fact-checked.
“They all had a connection to U.S. politics in some way,” Garrett told CNN. People who identified as independent politically were excluded from the panel, and Garrett and Bond tried to keep the same people on the panel from month to month for consistency.
“Consistent with other studies, we find that American conservatives are more likely than liberals to hold misperceptions,” they wrote.
The most viral stories tended to appeal to conservatives, they found. Just 10% were biased toward liberal points of view.
“The topics were selected on the basis of social media engagement, suggesting that these are the very issues that Americans were most likely to encounter online,” they added.
“Analyses suggest that conservatism is associated with a lesser ability to distinguish between true and false claims across a wide range of political issues and with a tendency to believe that all claims are true. The study also shows that conservatives’ propensity to hold misperceptions is partly explained by the political implications of this widely shared news. Socially engaging truthful claims tended to favor the left, while engaging falsehoods disproportionately favored the right.”
“These results underscore the importance of reducing the supply of right-leaning misinformation.”
Conservatives were a little less likely to believe stories that were actually true, the researchers found.
“It’s tempting to try and read this as evidence that conservatives are more biased or somehow psychologically predisposed to misperceptions. We can’t say that,” Garrett said.
It might be that conservatives are being targeted more. “We have evidence the media environment is shaping peoples’ misperceptions,” he added. “Our data suggests that the composition of the media environment is playing a great role now.”
Garrett and his colleagues are now studying a panel of volunteers looking at pandemic information and misinformation. he has not looked at any of the data yet, but suspects he will find what other studies have also shown — that people who identify as conservative are also more vulnerable to misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.
President Biden noted this Wednesday in urging more Americans to get vaccinated.
“Getting the vaccine is not a partisan act. The science was done under Democratic and Republican administrations. Matter of fact, the first vaccines were authorized under a Republican President and widely developed by a Democratic President — deployed by a Democratic President,” Biden said in a televised speech.
It’s not clear what can be done to reduce the load of false information. Although sometimes it’s obvious that a report is a lie, often it appears people honestly believe the false information they are spreading is true, Garrett said.
Social media companies have said they are trying to do more to put the brakes on the spread of false information, and Garrett said studies indicate that fact-checking works, too — although not necessarily immediately.
“It’s not that a single fact-checking message is going to move people en masse from one belief to another,” he said. And that would be illogical anyway — people are not likely to say “‘they’re right and everything I thought before was wrong,'” Garrett said.
“But over time they add up.”
Individuals can also make a difference with polite engagement. “When you see someone online, it can feel like shouting into the wind wind to try and introduce a fact check,” Garrett said.
“But the scientific research suggests that challenging inaccuracies, speaking up when someone says something that isn’t true, can make a difference.”