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UCSB research finds “social approval” makes people more willing to believe fake news

Flickr / Tim Reckmann

New research from UC Santa Barbara examines how social approval makes people more willing to believe fake news stories on social media.

The study was conducted by UCSB’S Communications professor Joseph Walther and a group of graduate students. Walther said he’s been studying news and misinformation for several years and wanted to conduct this study to better understand the recent phenomenon of fake news.

“It seemed like there was a real gap in our understanding that had not yet taken into account people's interactions, and we've taken a very specific interest in the role of social approval and social media,” Walther said.

The researchers created their own fake news stories and posted them to a false website they created, called

“We realized that to do an authentic investigation, we really had to replicate the things that real fake news purveyors do,” Walther said.

They posted four stories onto the website about California representatives that do not actually exist, and set-up fabricated Twitter accounts to tweet them out into the digital world.

About 600 people participated in the study and were asked to look at the tweets and news stories attached. Next, the participants were told to retweet a story they wanted others to read and provide a comment encouraging viewers to do so.

The last step was to step back and see how everyone reacted.

Walthers said his team originally thought the more likes a person gets on a fake news story, the more likely they are to believe the fake news — whether it was positive or negative news. But it didn’t quite work that way.

U.S. Media Literacy Week is sponsored by the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
U.S. Media Literacy Week is sponsored by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Its goal is to educate people on media literacy, which includes how to spot fake or misleading news stories.

“When it was a politician from the opposite party and when it was bad news, the more reinforcement people got through those likes and the more they disliked that politician. The likes reinforced and magnified their negative appraisal,” Walther said.

The fake news only spread and got likes when it was bad news concerning a political figure from the opposite party.

Walther said because it's so addicting for users to spread negative news and receive 'likes' for it, this isn’t just a social media problem. He said the problem lies with people’s need for approval and popularity.

“This is a social phenomenon. This is something that happens because of people's basic nature of wanting approval and wanting attention from other people," he said.

"Technology didn't invent that need, technology just accelerates it. The problem is with people's desire for approval and popularity. That's nothing new. It's just a new incarnation of an old human tendency,” Walther said.

As for possible solutions, Walther said if social media companies want to intervene, they could look into reducing or obscuring the number of likes a person receives on posts.

“Facebook experimented with this outside the United States and made it invisible to users, how many likes they were getting from others. I think it can be kind of an addiction for people to see how much popularity they're able to accrue by posting messages, and the more outrageous the messages the more popular,” Walther said.

The full study is published in the Journal of Communication.

Gabriela Fernandez is a general assignment reporter at KCBX News. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an Associate Producer on the TahoeLand podcast.
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