Recent Research

When it comes to fake news, it’s not seeing, but ♥’ing, that’s believing. 

New research finds that the more ♥’s people got when they retweeted a negative fake story, the more they agreed with the story’s content – and hated the (fake) politician in the story even more.

When it comes to fake news, it’s not seeing, but collecting ♥’s, that’s believing. A new experiment by Dr. Joseph B. Walther and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Center for Information Technology and Society, published in the December 2022 Journal of Communication, examined the effect of social approval on people’s belief in fake news stories. After retweeting a fake, political news story, the more hearts people got—the symbol that means another user liked their posting—the more they agreed with the story’s content. But the social approval effect only happened when the news targeted the “other” political party and it was “bad news”. 

Conventional wisdom was that people buy into fake news pretty passively, at least when it aligns with their existing beliefs. This research focused on what’s social about social media—the interactions and social approval among users. Social media also have unique symbols people use to communicate approval: Twitter’s heart button, for instance, or Facebook’s Thumbs Up icon. When someone shares news on social media, and their post accumulates these symbols from other people, it’s a potentially powerful reward that can affect an individual’s perception that what they shared is true. So when a story portrays a politician negatively, the more social approval someone gets for sharing it, the worse they perceive the person depicted in the story to be. The effect is limited to negative stories, and they have to focus on a politician from the “other” political party: bad news about a Republican, to a Democrat social media user; or bad news about a Democrat, to a Republican user.  

To test the theory that the accumulation of hearts affects perceptions when sharing news on social media, Walther and his team’s experiment took some unusual steps. They created realistic fake news stories and posted them on a website similar to those that real fake news peddlers use: a web domain with a newsy name, There were two positive and two negative stories, each one describing California elected officials (who did not actually exist). One positive story portrayed the official’s efforts to acquire more “personal protective equipment” for hospital workers treating Covid patients. A negative story portrayed a state senator shaking hands with constituents outside a (bogus) grocery store, without a mask, flaunting the social distancing requirements at the time. And there were two versions of each story, one that labeled the politician with a “D” and another with an “R,” for Democrat or Republican. The stories on the website were linked to teaser messages on bogus Twitter accounts that were also created for the study. 

Over 600 social media users participated in the two-part study. They were asked to look at two of the Tweets, read the news stories linked to the Tweets, and to retweet the one they thought that others should read, adding an original comment encouraging others to do so. Up to 20 research assistants Liked the retweets—that is, clicked a heart under each message—in specific, randomly assigned amounts. Some Tweets received no hearts, while others received 5, 10, 15, or 20. (Most real-world non-celebrity Tweets get a handful of hearts, or less). After a few more days, participants went to finish the study. They reviewed their retweets and how many hearts they got, indicated whether they tried to fact-check the story, and completed survey scales measuring their perception of the politician in the story.

Results indicated that merely retweeting a story didn’t affect participant perceptions. Neither did attempted fact-checking. “Good” politicians were favored whether or not they belonged to the same or the opposite political party as study participants. For the negative news, though, it was a different story: When participants retweeted a negative news story, and when it depicted a politician from the political party opposite of their own, the hearts made a difference. In that case, the more hearts their retweets collected, the worse they thought of the politician in the fake story.  

So it’s not just reading fake news that makes the difference. It’s not even sharing a story with others that makes the difference. When it comes to destructive portrayals of politicians—the most common and most dangerous type of misinformation—it’s social interaction with others, even through the tiny signals of social approval that are native to social media platforms, that magnifies people’s false beliefs. 

Joseph B Walther, Zijian Lew, America L Edwards, & Justice Quick, “The effect of social approval on perceptions following social media message sharing applied to fake news.” Journal of Communication.