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Aug. 25, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

When it comes to the academic study of fake news, “bullshit receptivity” is a thing

Plus: The importance (or not) of identifying news sources, big companies go rumor-hunting, and how easy it is to plant a fake poll.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“The cognitive psychological profile of individuals who fall prey to fake news.” Two Yale professors — Gordon Pennycook, a psychology professor, and David G. Rand, an economics professor — have a paper called “Who falls for fake news? The roles of analytic thinking, motivated reasoning, political ideology, and bullshit receptivity.

(Pennycook has studied the concept of bullshit receptivity for a while. From 2015: “Bullshit is a consequential aspect of the human condition. Indeed, with the rise of communication technology, people are likely encountering more bullshit in their everyday lives than ever before.”)

One of the new paper’s findings: motivated reasoning — “the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal” — doesn’t seem to play as much of a role as some think:

Participants were actually better able to discern real from fake news among stories that were consistent with their political ideology (although, as discussed below, this was only true for participants who preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump). Moreover, analytic thinking was not associated with increased acceptance of politically concordant fake news. In fact, the precise opposite pattern of results was observed: In parallel with research on pseudo-profound bullshit (Pennycook et al., 2015), analytic thinking was associated with the rejection of or disbelief in even politically concordant fake news articles. Thus, the evidence indicates that people fall for fake news because they fail to think; not because they think in a motivated or identity-protective way.

They found that “the overall capacity to discern real from fake news was lower among those with a preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton,” adding, “The present results indicate that there is, in fact, a political asymmetry when it comes to the capacity to discern the truth in news media.”


Analytic thinking made Clinton supporters believe fake news less, but made Trump supporters believe real news more. This is an informative difference when considering the impact of political ideology on belief in fake and real news. It appears that there is meaningful variability in how Americans on the right of the political spectrum approach news headlines from verified sources…Factors that undermine the legitimate news media may particularly exacerbate the problem of fake news among Trump supporters.

They suggest that, rather than fact checks, “a more promising approach to improve media literacy among Republicans may be to increase trust in legitimate news sources,” though more research is required.

For another look at fake news through the lens of psychology, see this Washington Post article from December.

Not just fake news — fake polls, too! FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten writes about how “the line between legitimate and illegitimate pollsters is blurring,” especially as more polls move online.

Now putting out a “poll” is easy and relatively cheap. It costs just $60, for example, to ask one question to 400 respondents in New York state via Google Surveys. That opens the door for many people to field surveys who wouldn’t have been able to afford it in years past. This can certainly be a good thing: More pollsters means more data and more innovation. But that also means that we now have to ask ourselves not just whether a survey is real or fake, but also whether the person designing the survey knows what they are doing. You can think of it as a two-dimensional plane.

He also wrote a list of tips on how to avoid falling for a fake poll.

The second of those tips, by the way, is to check who conducted the poll. That ties back into something discussed in the “bullshit receptivity” Yale paper above: The researchers tested whether the indication/display of an article’s source on Facebook affected people’s judgment. They found that it didn’t: “Removing the sources from news articles had no effect whatsoever on perceptions of accuracy or social media sharing.”

It is unclear whether this is the consequence of the format of news articles on Facebook (i.e., it may be that the source is not noticeable enough to have an impact) or if people tend to disregard the source when making judgments about news headlines. Regardless, this represents a pragmatic problem for social media platforms and more work is required to develop ways to increase the influence
of source information since it conveys relevant signals about accuracy and editorial norms.

In fact, Facebook took steps this week to surface publisher logos alongside news articles: “We want to make it easier for publishers to extend their brand identity on Facebook,” wrote product manager Andrew Anker, “to enhance people’s awareness of the source of content they see on Facebook, so they can better decide what to read and share.”

“[Farmers] are sitting in combines and planters and listening to podcasts.” Fake news about companies, spread on social media, is increasingly a problem for brands like Starbucks, Costco, and uh, Monsanto, writes Hannah Kuchler in the Financial Times.

[Platforms like Facebook and Twitter] have not created special avenues for companies to report fake news before it potentially affects a share price or sales.

PR and crisis management teams are relying on other services: Storyful now has an arm that provides business intelligence on what is being said on social media, and PR firm Weber Shandwick is marketing crisis simulation software called Firebell to prepare companies for being caught in a social media firestorm, whether it is a fake story or a presidential tweet.

Monsanto says it has tried to battle rumors about, say, its GMO products by switching “its focus from engaging with farmers and investors to looking at the broader internet.”

“Ukraine vs. Fake News.” The most recent episode of NPR’s new podcast, Rough Translation, explores what the U.S. can learn from Ukraine’s experience. For one thing: “Do not ignore this problem because it allowed Russian media to influence local people to kill each other.

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Aug. 25, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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