Opinion: People can spot fake news. So why are conspiracy theories thriving on social media?

Williams is a political science major from Carmel Valley. Ziment is a major in public policy analysis, originally from 4S Ranch. Both are students at Pomona College in Claremont.

A new conspiracy theory is catching on: The Omicron is a variant invented by Democrats to help them in the midterm elections. Fox News commentator Pete Hegseth suggested that you could “count on a variation every October or so, every two years.” It’s only natural to wonder who would believe ridiculous conspiracy theories like these. It may not necessarily be a sudden and widespread belief in the correctness of plots, but rather a new digital world that allows them to spread and thrive.

This digital world is ruled by social media, which is the main author of growing support for conspiracy theories by causing inaccurate sharing and keeping information processing at the surface level.

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Many assume that political ideology leads to believing in false information and conspiracy theories, and while partisanship is important, it is not as important as many claim. It’s also not that people are unable to tell right news from fake news. While people are more likely to believe partisan political views they agree with, studies show that when people are asked to rate real titles, their ratings are accurate. They may even be better able to assess the accuracy of the views of those with a policy similar to theirs.

So what is really driving this phenomenon?

It boils down to heuristics (mental shortcuts) and degree of analytical thinking. The idea that “as goes with it” leads people to believe conspiracy theories because your brain instinctively believes that great causes must have great effects.

Another heuristic that describes how exposure to a fake headline increases belief later is the “illusory truth effect”. The length of exposure to a medium can be an extremely influencing factor in belief. Psychological researchers Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand point out that people are less likely to believe in fake news content when they are more thoughtful and are able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Overconfidence obstructs thinking, which leads to a greater belief in conspiracy theories.

In the standoff between intuitive and rational systems, social media helps kick-start treatment at the intuitive level. By bypassing more in-depth treatment, support for conspiracy theories increases as they are not fully addressed for accuracy. It’s not necessarily that people don’t care about ensuring the accuracy of what they read and share. Instead, social media helps focus their attention on other factors that distract from the more in-depth processing needed to discern what’s true and what isn’t.

A recent study found that social media distractors and their desire to attract followers all contribute to an increased likelihood of sharing misinformation. For conspiracy theories, increased media sharing, no matter how true they are, means a more prolific message and a broader base for these fake stories to thrive. And with more followers, these stories gain validity, and the self-sustaining cycle driven by social media is fueling the fire of the spread of disinformation.

What is at the heart of this new development is the discovery that the shape of digital media influences the way information is processed. Images or blurbs, commonly found on platforms like Twitter, are processed quickly and automatically. Thus, conspiracy theories presented in this format and on these platforms are processed faster in a less controlled and less precise manner.

These recent findings regarding the influence of media type on processing, coupled with the rise of concise and accessible media platforms like Twitter and TikTok, create an environment in which conspiracy theories gain more weight and flourish more than ever before. . .

Considering all this, it is not surprising that research by Xizhu Xiao at Chinese University of Qingdao and Porismita Borah and Yan Su at Washington State University shows that “the use of social media was associated with higher conspiracy beliefs, and social media trust was found to be an important moderator of the relationship between social media use and conspiracy beliefs.

So what is the solution ? Studies show that credibility indicators, which verify sources and present a score, reduce false shares. But it’s not something that ordinary people have control over. What can people like you do to combat this effect? Research shows that being an active, thoughtful, and open-minded social media user is associated with good online behavior. Before you share something, spend a few seconds just thinking, “Is this something that you think is true? “

About Harold Hartman

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