Why do so few people share fake news? It hurts their reputation

Sacha Altay, Anne-Sophie Hacquin, Hugo Mercier:

In spite of the attractiveness of fake news stories, most people are reluctant to share them. Why? Four pre-registered experiments (N = 3,656) suggest that sharing fake news hurt one’s reputation in a way that is difficult to fix, even for politically congruent fake news. The decrease in trust a source (media outlet or individual) suffers when sharing one fake news story against a background of real news is larger than the increase in trust a source enjoys when sharing one real news story against a background of fake news. A comparison with real-world media outlets showed that only sources sharing no fake news at all had similar trust ratings to mainstream media. Finally, we found that the majority of people declare they would have to be paid to share fake news, even when the news is politically congruent, and more so when their reputation is at stake.

Recent research suggests that we live in a “post-truth” era (Lewandowsky et al., 2017; Peters, 2018), when ideology trumps facts (Van Bavel and Pereira, 2018), social media are infected by fake news (Del Vicario et al., 2016), and lies spread faster than (some) truths (Vosoughi et al., 2018). We might even come to believe in fake news—understood as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent” (Lazer et al., 2018, p. 1094; see also Tandoc et al., 2018a)—for reasons as superficial as having been repeatedly exposed to them (Balmas, 2014).

In fact, despite the popularity of the “post-truth” narrative (Lewandowsky et al., 2017; Peters, 2018), an interesting paradox emerges from the scientific literature on fake news: in spite of its cognitive salience and attractiveness (Acerbi, 2019), fake news is shared by only a small minority of Internet users (Grinberg et al., 2019; Guess et al., 2019; Nelson and Taneja, 2018; Osmundsen et al., 2020). In the present article, we suggest and test an explanation for this paradox: sharing fake news hurts the epistemic reputation of its source and reduces the attention the source will receive in the future, even when the fake news supports the audience’s political stance.

How much political news do people see on Facebook? I went inside 173 people’s feeds to find out by Laura Hazard Owen.