Why do we fall for fake news?

The persuasive appeal of peers over experts is compounded by the fact that we tend to let our guard down even more when we encounter news in our personal space. Increasingly, most of our online destinations — whether they’re portal sites (such as Yahoo News and Google News), social media sites, retail sites or search engines – have tools that allow us to customize the site, tailoring it to our own interests and identity (for example, choosing a profile photo or a news feed about one’s favorite sports team).

Our research shows that internet users are less skeptical of information that appears in these customized environments. In an experiment published in the current issue of the journal Media Psychology, a former student, Hyunjin Kang, and I found that study participants who customized their own online news portal tended to agree with statements like “I think the interface is a true representation of who I am” and “I feel the website represents my core personal values.”

We wanted to see if this enhanced identity changed how they processed information. So we introduced fake health news stories – about the negative effects of applying sunscreen and drinking pasteurized milk — into their portal.

We discovered that participants who had customized their news portal were less likely to scrutinize the fake news and more likely to believe it. What’s more, they showed a higher tendency to act on the advice offered in the stories (“I intend to stop using sunscreen”) and recommend that their friends do the same.