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ANU explains why we believe fake news

Australian National University researchers have released their findings behind why fake news and conspiracy theories can be hard to decipher.

The new open-access eBook, The Psychology of Fake News, analyses the psychology behind why our minds can be untrustworthy when seeing and believing false information.

Co-editor Dr Eryn Newman from the ANU College of Health and Medicine and contributing author Professor Robert Ackland found internal biases tend have the biggest impact.

“Stock photos in the media may not only bias people’s assessments of truth but also lead to an inflated feeling of knowledge or memory about a claim they encounter,” Dr Newman said.  

“In our research we have found that people mostly conclude that decorative photos help them understand a claim, or don’t influence their perceptions of truth. Only 10% said they thought a photo added credibility. That is, the influence of photos is rather insidious.  

“While people may be confident in their ability to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, and real from fake, looking at broader research on eyewitness memory and lie detection we know that detecting truth is fallible and vulnerable to biases we are often unaware of.”  

Professor Ackland said the research had also found social networks to facilitate the spread of false information. 

“Social media has led to essentially anybody becoming an authority on news distribution, with little fact-checking occurring,” he said.  

“Related to this is the phenomenon of ‘filter bubbles’ where algorithms used by social media companies select new content for users based on their previous engagement with content. 

“This reinforces information consumption patterns and it being less likely users are exposed to new information.”  

Twitter changed its policy guidelines in March to address and label content that went directly against COVID-19 health advice, however, decided to continue this with misleading tweets.

But Dr Newman warned that repetitiveness still can outweigh these warnings when it comes to misinformation.

“We know more broadly that giving people a warning when encountering information at times makes them more sceptical,” she said. 

“When they encounter it over and over again, they don’t always come with that warning and the risk of repetition is there in thinking there is some truth in the content.”

The research also found satirical websites, such as Beetota Advocate, can be mistaken for real news.

“If you think about correcting misinformation or if you are better off getting rid of it in the context of media consumption, some of the findings we have found is not giving it the notice,” Dr Newman said.

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