Whether it’s anti-vaccine messaging or falsehoods about the 2020 election, it’s easy to blame conservatives or Republicans as a group for spreading misinformation, as many in the media and academia have done. But this message is oversimplified, and anyone who wants to fight back against the very real scourge of fake news in American politics should look more closely.
In newly published research, we found that it’s not conservatives in general who tend to promote false information, but rather a smaller subset of them who also share two psychological traits: low levels of conscientiousness and an appetite for chaos. Importantly, we found that several other factors we tested for — including support for former President Donald Trump — did not reliably predict an inclination to share misinformation.
Our findings suggest it is misguided to assign blame for misinformation to the political right broadly — indeed, doing so risks increasing polarization. Instead, it would be more productive for researchers, social media platforms, politicians and members of the media to focus their efforts on low-conscientiousness conservatives (LCCs for short) in particular. Yet, our findings also showed that fact-checking was not an effective way to prevent these conservatives from sharing false news stories, meaning other interventions are needed.
To be clear, existing research has found that conservatives have a greater tendency toward misinformation than liberals do. For example, during the 2016 election, individuals who leaned conservative were more likely to engage with and share disinformation on Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, in the early months of the pandemic, conservatives were more likely to believe Covid-19 was a hoax, and to downplay the virus’ severity.
However, given that conservatism historically has been associated with respect for tradition, authority and social institutions, we reasoned that ideology alone might not explain the spread of fake news. We decided to investigate the role personality traits might play, focusing our research on conscientiousness — the tendency to regulate one’s own behavior by being less impulsive and more orderly, diligent and prudent. Our presumption was that conservatives with lower levels of conscientiousness would be more inclined to spread fake news, and that there would be no difference between highly conscientious conservatives and their liberal counterparts.
We tested these hypotheses across eight experimental studies with a sample size of more than 4,600 participants in total. In each study, participants reported their political ideology and responded to several questions evaluating their tendency toward conscientious on a five-point scale. They then were exposed to a series of fake and real news headlines — a mix of neutral, conservative or liberal-leaning in their news content — and asked to indicate their willingness to share those news stories with other people.
We found that low-conscientiousness liberals, high-conscientiousness liberals and high-conscientiousness conservatives each expressed willingness to share fake news articles to a similar — relatively small — degree. LCCs stood out: On average, they were 2.5 times more likely to share misinformation than the combined averages of the other three groups. In other words, it was the combination of conservatism and low conscientiousness that resulted in the greatest likelihood to share misinformation.
We also wanted to understand what, exactly, drives LCCs to spread misinformation. So, in one of the studies, we asked participants to report their leanings on a range of potential influences: level of support for Trump, time spent on social media, distrust of the mainstream media, and endorsement of conservative social and economic values. To our surprise, none of these factors was a reliable predictor of LCCs’ elevated tendency to share false news stories.
Instead, using statistical analysis, we found that the only reliable explanation was a general desire for chaos — that is, a motivation to disregard, disrupt, and take down existing social and political institutions as a means of asserting the dominance and superiority of one’s own group. Participants indicated their appetite for chaos by using a scale to express how much they agreed with statements like, “I think society should be burned to the ground.” For LCCs, we concluded, sharing false information is a vehicle for propagating chaos.
Can LCCs be prevented from sharing falsities? One of the most common measures for combating misinformation is using accurate messaging or fact-checker interventions, which have been shown to reduce the sharing of misinformation. Unfortunately, in two studies, we found that fact-checking warnings were inadequate: LCCs continued to share fake news stories at a higher rate compared with liberals and high-conscientiousness conservatives, despite being told the news was inaccurate.
This is a concerning finding. At the same time, our research overall suggests a path forward. First, those seeking to combat false information online can now target their interventions toward a smaller subset of the population: LCCs. More targeted approaches have been shown to be effective in influencing individual behavior in the past.
Second, our research makes clear that anyone trying to reach LCCs needs to experiment with interventions that go beyond fact-checking. We believe the onus falls primarily on social media companies. There is plenty of evidence that a user’s personality and political ideology can be inferred based on their social media activity. If these companies can identify LCCs, that means they can also be proactive in making sure LCCs are presented with reliable information, and not with falsities.
Misinformation is a serious threat to American democracy that deserves serious attention. But we should be smart about how we go about combating the spread of fake news stories. While our research doesn’t provide all the answers, it can help to narrow the focus of these efforts and, in the process, should divert blame away from those conservatives who aren’t sharing misinformation.