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Who Believes Misinformation? Are Liberals More Susceptible? (Episode 15)

Who Believes Misinformation? Are Liberals More Susceptible?

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

Researching the benefits of situations where people come together to solve puzzles or make decisions, Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg realised that there is a dark side of collective intelligence. This led her to research fake news. When her team showed simulated social media posts, accurate or not, to a sample of Americans, it emerged that liberals more than conservatives judge information as reliable, even when it isn’t, when it comes from a source they trust. So The Inoculation team contacted Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg to find out more. You can read her (and Sander van der Linden’s) paper here. The tweet mentioned by Eva is here.

Our reporting is supported by IJ4EU and Alfred Toepfer Stiftung. Please subscribe to our newsletter, and this show on Apple Podcasts, Audible, Google Podcasts, Spotify or another platform of your choice. Follow us on Facebook as @theinoculation, on Twitter as @TInoculation, and on Instagram as @the_inoculation

Here's the transcript (A computer helped us, so excuse the mistakes):

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  0:00
The general message whenever you Google how to spot misinformation, you're always told check the source. However, I think what what our research contributes to this discussion is is saying also check your biases. So it's not enough anymore to just check. is the source sort of real a real source? Or is this a fake source? It's also important to check whether or not there are any biases you might have that make you more likely to sort of trust whatever information is presented by the source because all sources can make mistakes.

Eva Schaper  0:45
We just heard from Cecile Steinberg Trebek, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. I talked to her last week about her research, which we'll be looking at in this episode. What was the most surprising, I thought that looking at some outlets, and to be honest, some liberal outlets, such as the New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal, would insulate me from consuming misinformation? But it turns out that it really doesn't work that way. Are you saying that Nowhere is safe? No, I'm saying that we really have to be on our toes all the time. And really think about what we're reading what we're listening to, and what kind of media we're consuming.

Daiva Repeckaite  1:32
Hello, you're listening to the inoculation where we explore the intersection of anti vaccine beliefs, technology and politics.

Eva Schaper  1:40
Join me Eva Schaper and my colleague diver replicator, as we come through research to find out what you can do and what our government can do to stop the spread of disinformation. Welcome to our new listeners. I saw that a lot of Australians have been listening. So if you're from under it, just give us a holler.

Daiva Repeckaite  1:59
Yes. And if you're listening on Apple podcasts, we'd really help us if you could give us a great rating. Thank you. Okay. So back to the silic. So she's a researcher, and that's sounds a bit dry, doesn't it? Well,

Eva Schaper  2:13
you know, you can see that way. But after I had recorded the interview, and I saw the news of Collin pals death, unfolding and Twitter, and I really realized how timely her research really is.

Unknown Speaker  2:25
Four Star General Colin Powell, has died of COVID related complications. This news just breaking right now.

Daiva Repeckaite  2:34
Wait, so what is the connection?

Eva Schaper  2:36
Well, this Monday, so the beginning of this week, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell passed away. And the first news alert that I saw on my Twitter feed was a New York Times newsletter, and that was around 2pm. Here, I just pulled it up from Twitter. And it said, Colin Powell has died at 84 of COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated. His family said,

Daiva Repeckaite  3:00
right, I remember that. So what does that have to do with disinformation?

Eva Schaper  3:05
Well, most news outlets, those that I looked at took the information that Colin Powell was fully vaccinated from a news release from the Powell family, which said exactly that, and which I take to be true. But soon enough anti Vax voices, were using that fact to say, the COVID vaccine doesn't work because Colin Powell, despite being fully vaccinated, had died of COVID. So this was a form of misinformation and unknowingly it was being spread by major news outlets. Then a bit later, and I think it was about two hours, the news broke that colin powell also had multiple myeloma, which is a sort of cancer. And a lot of the news outlets change their headlines to reflect that. So I think this is just a really good example that shows us how even major news outlets can publish and can distribute misinformation unknowingly. And they were all using journalistic standard.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:05
Ouch. Yeah, I see what you mean. But what does it have to do with this Cambridge researcher?

Eva Schaper  4:11
Well, I had a really nice and long chat with Cecile, so let's take a listen to what she told me. And then maybe we'll see how even liberal media and high quality media can spread disinformation and how we are susceptible to believing that disinformation and maybe more susceptible than people who are more on the conservative side of consuming news. Who would have thought I certainly didn't, I thought that was really it's highly, highly interesting.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  4:45
Let's hear that. So my name is Celia Traver, and I'm a PhD student at University of Cambridge. In terms of, of field, I would say that I'm in a couple of different fields. So one is experimental social psychology, which says most about the methods that I use, and not necessarily the topic itself. So I use psychological experiments and statistical analyses, more specifically, in the terms of in terms of topic. I'm working in the field of persuasion and social influence, trying to understand why and how people are influenced by information, but also how well what we can do to prevent it. And then specifically applying this topic to the issue of fake news and misinformation.

Eva Schaper  5:33
Okay, and is misinformation always been your topic because I think I looked at some of your papers. And that's, you've worked on a couple of other subjects too.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  5:44
And you always interested in understanding why people act and think the way they do, and which is psychology. But at the time, I was also interested in learning how these insights can be applied in the commercial world. So marketing. And so I spent basically three years studying how people can be persuaded by and targeted by companies and messages and people. And and though although I did several internships and market strategy and worked for market research firms, it just wasn't really clicking for me yet. I felt like I still had an answered questions particularly about how the biological aspect of human cognition plays into this, and which is what led me to do a Master's of Science at UCL. And in social cognition, where the focus was, was a lot more on the neuroscience and biological understanding of how thoughts and attitudes develop and, and how this is processed in the brain. And following this, I worked for a year as a project leader at Copenhagen Business School, on a big project where we partnered with the toy company Lego, which is like quite different. But at the same time, it was similar in the sense that we were working in the field of collective intelligence, which is specifically looking at how groups of people or employees, making judgments together and decisions together could actually outperform any single individual or expert. So for example, if you ask 200 people to estimate the number of jelly beans in the jar, if you take the average of those 200 guesses, it'll likely be more accurate or closer to the real number than any single individual in the group. However, here in this role, or through this research, I also, of course, learned about the what makes groups of people less good at making judgments because others are there and because of social influence, basically, because we look to see what other people are doing this can affect us negatively as well. So I think all of these experiences led me to the question of well, how good are we at making judgments when one we're surrounded by social information that indicates what other people believe? And but also, we are surrounded by information that might tap into our individual biases, such as political biases, which would make us less good than we think, at making accurate judgments about information. So I so I guess given that misinformation poses an increasing threat to society, it seemed like the logical place to apply my my background and these questions,

Eva Schaper  8:18
looking at the study we're going to talk about today, um, is there a way to just sum it up in one sentence really hard, but just saying, Is there one sentence you can pull out that would put that with some of your research?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  8:34
Sure, I guess in summary, we find that both liberals and conservatives might be more susceptible to believing misinformation from sources that are politically aligned with their views, because they judge the sources to be more credible. Now before we already knew that content influences our perceptions and and likelihood of believing it, so whether the content is aligned with your political views, but we didn't know a lot about how the sources and the source slant might affect us.

Eva Schaper  9:12
So if I see I see a piece of news that completely aligns with my beliefs, I'm more likely to to rate that as true without even thinking about this. I think it's important to say, I don't reflect on this. This is an automatic judgment when I see a piece of news, it reflects what I believe already. I will accept it without even thinking about the fact that I'm accepting it

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  9:37
in a way and in a way Yes, in a way No. So when you say you see a headline, I think you're referring mainly to the content of the headline. So whether or not you know, the headline says something that might be liberally or conservatively slanted in some way. But we look specifically at the source. So we tried to take non political head To the extent that that's even possible, but kind of stripping away any form of political slant, and if we just show people things that are just misleading, but not necessarily tied to any political views, then the source a source mattered. So if the source was let's say Fox News, then conservatives were more likely to believe it. And if it was CNN, liberals are more likely to believe it. And the other part of your your question was really to to whether we do do this automatically. I think there's arguments for for both sides. In a way, if you say automatically as in like, without much reflection, I would say yes, so people look at the source. And then they sort of accept the headline, because they've already judged the source to be credible. But then if you kind of consider the judgement of the source being credible as being, you know, an act of judgment, and perhaps it's not so automatically just accepting the headline at face value,

Eva Schaper  11:06
there is always there's a bit of, I think, a mismatch and public perception of what is this information? What is misinformation, propaganda, fake news?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  11:16
Yes, definitely. So I think a lot of current misinformation research often considers the level of fakeness, or the attribution of fakeness to be at the level of the source, not the content. So basically suggesting that if the source is fake, or if the sources Yeah, made up and everything they post is fake. And if the sources legitimate, like a mainstream media source that everything they post must be true. However, in the lab that I'm working in the Cambridge deals with social decision making lab, we take a little bit of a different approach in suggesting that misinformation or news does not need to be completely false to be misleading. And in that way, we sort of define fake news as overall, you know, umbrella term for misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda, when you know, a headline might be misleading, or contain false information. But this could be as a result of human error. So not written with intent.

Eva Schaper  12:22
And so another thing, because you were saying, You're not only looking at the source, looking at the source would be saying, well, the New York Times, for example, is good. And RT, Russia is not so good. So that would be an easy decision. Maybe for somebody who's educated to make say, well, RT, Russia might not be a trustworthy news source. I'm going to look at mainstream media, such as CNN, New York Times Wall Street Journal. Yeah. So we're moving away from that. And your research, actually,

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  12:55
yeah. So we were more because a lot of previous research had sort of, you know, made the distinction between this is a really unreliable source. Let's see if people can detect that it's misinformation, when we compare it to a much more mainstream source like New York Times. And largely by and large, the research shows that yes, people are actually pretty good at that. However, we were more interested in looking at mainstream media sources in general, that might, you know, on some level, have a political slant. So we wanted to see whether if we actually take those no political slant, and and what of mainstream sources that already have like a large following weather that can prompt people to be more likely to believe misinformation?

Eva Schaper  13:45
And looking at your study design. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  13:49
participants were placed in groups where they saw misinformation from either liberally slanted mainstream media sources, or conservatively censored mainstream media sources?

Eva Schaper  14:01
And oh, sorry, can I just turn to these participants? Where did you find them? Are these people who walked into your lab or?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  14:09
Yes, so in, in the, in the larger pilot study, we basically, I don't know if you're familiar with the fake news game. But basically, this is like a platform that teaches players about educates players about misinformation strategies. So we ran one study via that online portal. So basically, anyone who kind of opted in to learn more about misinformation became part of this study. And so that was sort of our pilot study. So the flaws of that are, of course, that it includes a sample of people who already wanted to learn more about misinformation. So that's why we use that as a as an indicator of whether or not sources might play a role. And, as we could see that definitely, the sources definitely did play a role here and that the political landscape into matter, we decided to make a pre register study on the site prolific. And so basically, it's an online site a bit like Amazon Mechanical Turk, where participants are online and are paid to do online studies. So not bringing them physically into the lab. But But online. And this thankfully allowed us to access a US based sample, which we were mainly interested in as its, as the political slant sources is a bit more clear, in terms of audience like the audiences in the US are a little bit more divided in terms of who they give their trust to.

Eva Schaper  15:39
And so this setup, I think, important question is, of course, you're only going to capture people who have access to the theater, we use a computer. So people who will only watch TV or read the newspaper will not will not show up in a sample.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  15:56
Yeah, so that's an important point. And so obviously, it's only people who have access to the internet. And but I think that, given that what we're mainly looking at is also internet based misinformation. This seems appropriate.

Eva Schaper  16:14
Okay. And so what did you ask them to do? What did you ask the participants to do?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  16:19
So in in the first study, participants were placed in one of three groups. So either they, they saw only misinformation from conservatives incentive sources, and all the true information laid out was from liberally slanted sources. In a second group, we reverse that. So all the misinformation we saw was from liberal sources, and all the true information they saw was from conservative sources. And then we had a third group in which we blurred out the source to just assess if people didn't see any information about the source, what would they think about the headline, and then we could compared whether whether or not the political sense of the source actually interacted with participants own indication of their political ideology, and to make them more susceptible. And also compare this to the control group in which there was no source presence. In the pre register study, we did it a little bit differently, because we also wanted to see whether or not you know, in the Real News environment, you know, everything you'll see from conservatively, slanted sources won't be fake, and they won't be so that everything you see from liberally centered sources is fake. So here we we varied it. So it was within subject design. So basically, even though we did not, we use the same headlines as in study one, but in study two, we basically showed everyone misinformation from both liberal and conservative scientists sources, and we could see whether or not you know, within the participant was the individual participant more likely to believe misinformation if the source they saw was liberally slanted or conservatively sensitive.

Eva Schaper  18:00
Okay, just to give the listeners listeners an idea of what kind of misinformation or what kind of factual information you were showing them. What are some of the headlines that you use? Because right now misinformation? Sounds like it must be something really divisive? But when I look at the headlines are actually quite benign. It's actually really boring.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  18:23
Yeah, yeah. So so this is the I guess the case when I'm when you talk about non political misinformation, because the majority of misinformation is likely to have some form of you know, political leaning. And there's definitely also a spectrum of misinformation from you know, very absurdly untrue, and to questionable and things that are really hard to like to tell. And so I guess we were aiming for something a little bit in the middle. Because when you when in previous studies that have shown people, you know, very more obviously, fake headlines. It's been hard to detect any differences in people because everyone thinks this is untrue. We chose headlines that had been identified as false through an online fact checking platform in terms of factual information, we based factual information on you know, more current news topics that or could be number one confirmed by multiple media outlets. So

Eva Schaper  19:28
some of some of your factual headlines were Angela Merkel to step down as German Chancellor. Yeah, there's no doubt that that's going to happen. Um, physical fitness keeps your brain in good shape. Okay. And some of the misinformation headlines were experts, scientific studies, no longer trustworthy. I

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  19:55
guess it's emotional to some extent, but the specific strategy we were going for there was to crediting. So you're discrediting the field of science by appealing to this experts. Bias where you know, if people hear Oh, something an expert thing, it must be true. But they're essentially discrediting the whole field of science, and you can no longer trust science. Only Trust me.

Eva Schaper  20:20
Okay. And I think just to see if I'm getting this right, the misinformation headlines, were not taken from the outlet that they were then actually attributed to, is that right?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  20:34
Yes, that's correct. So the headlines were from completely, completely different sources than the ones that they were later attributed.

Eva Schaper  20:42
How did the study move on what happened then? It was from far the headlines. And

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  20:49
so the participants saw all the headlines. And they went through the study having to indicate how reliable on a scale from one to one to seven, they found the headline to be. In the first study, they asked, they were asked about reliability and the second study accuracy, but we didn't really find any differences there. And they were also asked to indicate how likely they would be to share the headlines on their on their social media. As an important factor we were interested in looking at was source credibility, as in whether or not these effects were driven by the fact that people found politically similar sources to be more credible. We also have participants rates, the credibility of each of the sources they were exposed to, from one to seven. And we, of course, also ask people about their political ideology on a scale from one to seven, how conservative or liberal they consider themselves to be. We also ask them about their current use of Twitter, because obviously, the headlines are presented in a Twitter format, who wants to see if there's any difference in people who never use Twitter with this? Would there be no effect of the source if they've never used Twitter? In terms of Twitter use? We didn't really find any effects there. It didn't really seem to matter whether if people spend a lot of time or Twitter on Twitter or not, the source had an equally strong effect.

Eva Schaper  22:12
Okay, and what did you find out what were the results.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  22:16
So the results were that both liberals and conservatives judge misinformation headlines to be more credible, and more reliable when the source aligns with their political views. We also found that this effect was driven by source credibility. So it wasn't just that, you know, the source was politically slanted in the way that they liked it was that the fact that the source was politically slanted in the personal pence direction, made the party friends judge, Judge, the source would be more credible. And this credibility judgment sort of spilled over into their judgement of the headline, making them judge the headline to be more reliable. I think another interesting thing that we found that previous research hadn't necessarily found was that we found an asymmetry between liberals and conservatives in that liberals, and we saw a stronger effect of the source on liberals and conservatives.

Eva Schaper  23:16
Okay. So basically,

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  23:19
liberals were relying a lot more on the slant and credibility of the source to make these judgments. So this made them more sort of susceptible to misinformation from liberally slanted sources. And, and it also made them discount factual information from conservative sources, much more than conservatives would discount factual information from overall sources.

Eva Schaper  23:45
Okay, that's interesting, because that kind of goes against what people think they would say, Well, here's Fox News. Very bad.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  23:55
Yeah. So in a way it goes against and still aligns with previous research. So in terms of previous research, most research has tended to show that conservatives on the whole are more susceptible to misinformation. And also that conservative sources on the whole publish more misinformation. And finally that there exists more fake conservative misinformation sources at liberal sources in general published less misinformation. And so the Q and the Q you get from judging whether or not you know, a sources is credible, if it's liberal, it's a little bit more accurate than if you rely on the conservative source. So you could see that in the real world, in which liberal sources don't actually publish as much misinformation as conservative sources. This doesn't really make liberals more more susceptible.

Eva Schaper  24:52
Okay. And I think it's also important here to say that misinformation can be something that's published completely by accident or we can Somebody like journalists like me, are bombarded with a lot of information.

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  25:05
In relation to that. I think I have quite a good example of this in the in the COVID crisis scenario. So, for example, in Denmark, the the mainstream media sources kind of a source that's, I guess, by the general public considered to not have a very strong political slant, Dr. Like, and so basically around a year ago, they came out with a bunch of headlines, both on the news like live broadcast, but also on news websites that face masks don't work. That was kind of like the overall headline face masks don't work. And they had you know, people come in to the the new studio to interview experts, like why are we having to wear face masks, this study just found they don't work? And I think so. So this was, in my opinion, a case of misinformation in the sense that it was misleading based on kind of human error in the sense that the original journalist who had interpreted this one small scientific study that came out, has sort of misinterpreted the findings, but then picked up by every news outlet, including the main one, and kind of take into the extreme, but this must mean that face masks don't work. And I feel like that's a good example of misinformation that sort of occurred by accident with no, you know, intent to deceive the general public in any way. And in a way, just as a misunderstanding of a very, maybe cryptically worded scientific article. And that kind of then went viral.

Eva Schaper  26:42
I think that's interesting. So if we, if there's something you can take away from your study for somebody like, obviously, for journalists, it's to be extremely careful. But for somebody who's reading the newspaper, or somebody who's you know, on Twitter, is there a message that they can take away?

Cecilie Steenbuch Traberg  27:02
One thing is that we already knew that it's important to check your sources. So I think that that's kind of what the general message whenever you Google how to spot misinformation, you're always told check the source. However, I think what what our research contributes to this discussion is is saying, also check your biases. So it's not enough anymore to just check. is the source sort of real a real source? Or is this a fake source? It's also important to check whether or not there are any biases you might have that make you more likely to sort of trust whatever information is presented by the source because all sources can make mistakes. And all sources might have some sort of political slant.

Daiva Repeckaite  27:55
So go and watch Fox News. No,

Eva Schaper  27:57
no, I think what's really important to stress is that in this study, the media that we're ready to be more conservative, so more on the right side of politics spread more disinformation. So while liberals are more likely to lose to believe their sources, it is because they do spread list is information, less misinformation, but still, it means we need to be careful about what we consume. I just wanted to remind everybody that all the links and all the tweets and everything we just talked about that's going to be in the show notes and we'll also add a transcript of the show to our website www the inoculation comm if you prefer to read about the show,

Daiva Repeckaite  28:47
if you want to hear more stories about vaccine hesitancy, you can look up the inoculation wherever you like to listen to podcasts.

Eva Schaper  28:54
And also, don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter inoculated and you'll find that link in the show notes as well.

Daiva Repeckaite  29:02
You can follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Our reporting is supported by AJ for EU and Alfred top festival. Bye for now.

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