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The psychology behind believing misinformation

Kathrin Wesolowski
February 13, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has shown just how susceptible people are to believing misinformation and conspiracy theories. What are the psychological reasons for this?

Demonstrators at a protest against the German government's corona measures
More and more people don't believe scientific facts about COVID and think governments want to take away their freedomImage: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/picture alliance

These days, many people have a hard time detecting misinformation. Jacqueline F. is one of them. In 2019, she fell for a screenshot of a fake newspaper article posted on Instagram claiming that Chilean police had abused and hung protesters. At the time, the country was in the middle of large-scale protests that began in response to a hike in public transport ticket prices. Jacqueline said she was shocked by the Instagram post and asked herself: "What are these police officers doing?"

Jacqueline eventually realized that she had been duped. Others have become even more likely to believe misinformation and conspiracy theories.

"That depends on a person's predisposition," the University of Bielefeld professor Andreas Zick, who studies conflict and violence, told DW. He said an individual might be more inclined to "believe conspiracy myths if that person already holds certain beliefs" or feels hostile towards certain groups or institutions, such as the police, the government or climate activists.

The internet is teeming with content that will echo and reinforce beliefs, Zick said. People limit themselves to channels that reflect theirs. "This creates more than an echo chamber," he added. "It is more like a parallel universe that caters to all kinds of needs."

Fear plays a major role in such tendencies, said professor Andreas Kappes, a psychology lecturer at City University London. Someone scared of syringes may not want to get vaccinated, he said, and therefor scour the internet for information claiming that vaccinations are dangerous and best avoided. Kappes said the key question was why certain people refuse to accept scientific findings. This is not, he said, a matter of education. 

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Media literacy

The ability to discern trustworthy from untrustworthy sources plays a key role, the neuroscientist and author Franca Parianen told DW. "Conspiracy theorists tend not to make a clear distinction between expert sources and random YouTube videos," Parianen said. She added that schools are not doing enough to teach media literacy.

People are also more susceptible to believing misinformation if they have experienced a major loss of control at some stage in their life, Parianen said. Misinformation, she added, can give such individuals a sense of stability.

"Suddenly, the world makes sense," Parianen said. "When conspiracy theorists feel unsure about their beliefs, they will try even harder to convince others they are right." After all, Parianen said, having people share their worldview confirms their beliefs.

Shutdown-induced boredom matters, too. "Boredom encourages some people to get lost in conspiracy theories," Parianen said. With ample free time, they find themselves browsing different social media pages and online discussion groups. Identifying with a certain group, she says, can provide a sense of community and counteract loneliness.

Algorithms are also to blame 

The dissemination of misinformation can not only be explained by psychological factors. Jens Koed Madsen, a senior research assistant at Oxford University, says social networks are also to blame. A US study found that misinformation spreads much faster on Twitter than real news does. The reason, Madsen says, is that misinformation tends to make use of "emotional language, it's often very sensationalist." Sometimes, he adds, utterly absurd and funny misinformation is shared by individuals who are not even duped by it.

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Individuals who believe in conspiracy theories are not immune to rational arguments, says Andreas Kappes. But "if you [simply] disagree, people will not listen." To reach them, he says, you must first find some common ground. Then you can engage in a discussion and reference facts. Kappes says it is important to give these people a sense of stability.

"Findings aspects in life that one can control, or getting involved in democratic organizations, can help," says Parianen. "Establishing stable social bonds also helps." In addition, learning to tell apart trustworthy and untrustworthy sources is essential.

Acquiring this competence can help ordinary people, like Jacqueline F., avoid falling for misinformation. She says she felt somewhat ashamed when they realized she had been deceived. These days, she spends more time researching news stories to find out what is true. "When I am unsure if something is true or false, I search for further information," she says. "I try to use reliable sources and avoid dubious websites."