We all know the type. Maybe it’s someone you knew from high school. Or maybe it’s a low-information type from your community. But you venture onto social media, Facebook most likely, and there’s a political screed backed up with a link to a dubious source. Check mate!
Political scientists, behavioral researchers and the media generally conclude the proliferation of misinformation comes from political conservatives — their echo-chamber ecosystem keeps up a steady stream, which is then regurgitated by other sources in the same ecosystem and amplified on social media.
Now, two Duke University researchers have dug into who is likely to share fake news and why. They investigated the relationship between personality, politics and sharing fake news through a series of eight studies, involving 4,642 participants. While there’s a documented association between sharing fake news and political conservatives, the researchers condemned that sweeping generalization.
One key determinant: personality. A widely used system for identifying and measuring personality traits is the five-factor theory called the Big Five. It organizes traits into five categories: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
Using this framework, the researchers, Asher Lawson, a Duke graduate student, and Hemant Kakkar, an assistant professor of management, focused specifically on conscientiousness. That trait, they wrote in a report published this month in Scientific American, captures differences in people’s orderliness, impulse control, conventionality and reliability. The researchers predicted that low-conscientiousness conservatives (LCCs) would disseminate more misinformation than other conservatives or low-conscientiousness liberals.
In the first study, Lawson and Kakkar measured people’s political ideology and conscientiousness. Then they showed the same people a series of real and fake news stories relating to COVID-19 and asked them to rate the accuracy and whether they would share the story. Both liberals and conservatives sometimes saw false stories as accurate — likely driven in part by wanting certain stories to be true. And while people of all political persuasions share false news, this behavior was markedly higher among LCCs when compared with everyone else in the study.
In a second study, they wrote in Scientific American, they replicated these results with fake news that featured a strong political slant and observed an even greater effect. Again, liberals across the conscientiousness spectrum, along with highly conscientious conservatives, did not engage in spreading misinformation at a high rate.
But conservatives low in conscientiousness were frequent spreaders.
Next, they sought to explain what drives conservatives low in conscientiousness to share fake news. They conducted an experiment that gathered information about participants’ politics and personality, and at the same time, assessed their desire for chaos, their support of socially and economically conservative issues, support for Donald Trump, trust in mainstream media, and time spent on social media.
The researchers found low-conscientiousness conservatives have a general need for chaos, the desire to destroy existing political and social institutions. “Importantly, other factors we studied, including support for Trump, time spent on social media, and political and economic conservatism were not as strongly tied to low-conscientiousness conservatives’ heightened tendency to share fake news,” they wrote.
There were several other findings: