Who Is Most Vulnerable To Misinformation? A Social Psychology and Applied Psychology Podcast Episode
All around the world, misinformation is a massive problem that has a wide range of consequences and all of them negative. This was stark and very clear to see during the COVID-19 pandemic where the spread of misinformation about health, the disease and vaccines were widespread causing a hell of a lot of damage. Therefore, in this social psychology podcast episode, we investigate the important question of who is most vulnerable to misinformation so we can better protect them, and better protect society as a whole. If you enjoy social psychology with an applied psychology focus then you will love today’s episode.
Today’s episode has been sponsored by Social Psychology: A Guide To Social And Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Who Is Most Vulnerable To Misinformation?
Because of the interest in the problem and risk associated with misinformation, a lot of researchers and academics have started investigating this topic in more depth in an effort to help tackle this stark problem. And yet, there is one question that keeps rising without a seemingly clear answer, who is the most vulnerable to misinformation?
Then there are, of course, sub-questions that quite rightly get attached to this big one. For example, researchers are interested in are there certain environmental or circumstantial factors that impact someone’s vulnerability, or do personality or psychological profiles predict someone’s firm belief in misinformation?
These questions are great in theory because knowing the answer to them would certainly be helpful but they are problematic because of methodological issues. Because I have no idea how the hell would test these questions at all in an empirical way. That’s the problem facing researchers but thankfully some people have made headway so we are starting to have an idea.
Especially, as we used to believe that if someone was just exposed to misinformation then that was enough to make a person believe in it, but more modern research is starting to cast a lot of doubt on that idea. For example, Vidgen (2021) suggests that people who are low in certain skills, for example media literacy, digital literacy and cognitive skills may be prone to misinformation.
And personally, this is why I hate tabloids because in my experience, tabloids simply made up or twist stories to make people angry and sell stories. For example, in February 2023 in the UK, a far-right protest outside a hotel housing migrants waiting to get their asylum claim processed turned violent, because the far-right started beating up innocent migrants. That’s the facts. The next day, I saw at two tabloids reporting that it was the migrants that started to riot and they were attacking people.
It was absolute… rubbish and clear misinformation but tons of people believed it sadly. Hence, creating the completely wrong belief that refugees and migrants are nothing more than criminals. It’s wrong and I hate the myth.
Anyway, this is why I always encourage people to check your sources whenever you read the news.
In addition, these findings flat out don’t say that people who believe in misinformation just lack key knowledge. Since these factors around literacy and cognitive skills don’t make up most of the reasons why people probably believe in misinformation. These factors only account for a small part of the problem. As well as it’s likely that a knowledge deficit isn’t the reason why misinformation spreads.
How Do Identity Characteristics Impact Misinformation Vulnerability?
Some other research findings find that identity characteristics could make someone more vulnerable to misinformation. For example, previous research finds that whilst political polarisation (meaning both the far-left and the far-right) is a risk factor for believing in misinformation, people on the political right are more likely to believe in and spread misinformation than people on the political left (Digital Planet, 2020).
In addition, age and education seem to be risk factors as well since advanced age is associated with a higher likelihood of sharing misinformation as is only having a high school degree display more vulnerability to believing in fake or misleading news (Digital Planet, 2020).
Also, I’m just putting this in because this was a massive fake argument that my nan tried to say and I want to get ahead of it. If you believe for one moment that these research findings are fake because you believe that the researchers manipulated their data because they were left-wing and they just wanted to blame the right-wing. You clearly have forgotten how academia works.
It is impossible or extremely, extremely difficult for researcher nowadays to fake data, write misleading articles and get them professionally published. So the idea that left-wing researchers just wanted to blame the right wing is stupid and very funny.
Anyway, research on identity and skills-related factors show that certain people are predisposed to believing in and sharing misinformation, so this research is helpful in understanding these factors. But it doesn’t answer questions about, are there certain psychological or personality factors involved?
How Psychological And Personality Factors Relate To Misinformation Vulnerability?
Thankfully, in the realm of conspiracy theory research, there have been a good amount of studies investigating this area with some good findings. For instance, certain psychological features, like loneliness and isolation (Hutson, 2017), and certain personality traits, like narcissism (Cichocka et al., 2022), do lead to a greater chance of believing in conspiracy theories. But are these psychological and personality factors at all relevant to misinformation?
The main problem is that misinformation research is still in its infancy stage, but there is good research that suggests that psychological factors if present in childhood might affect them in adult life in ways that make them susceptible to misinformation (American Psychological Association News Release, 2018). Since generally, our childhood beliefs get challenged when we get older, but there is always a strong emotional inclination to hold onto beliefs from our childhood that allow us to maintain family peace. Therefore, as children learn to come up with rationalisations for their firmly-held beliefs and maintain them regardless of the challenge, confirmation bias (our tendency to seek out confirming and agreeing evidence for our beliefs), our beliefs get strengthened all the way into adulthood.
As a result, the less a child is challenged about their beliefs, the more likely they are to excel with rationalisations that get rid of alternative ideas. On the other hand, if children are actively taught scepticism and critical thinking, their confirmation bias “muscles” get a little weaker.
Moreover, people with high levels of anxiety are more prone to confirmation bias, partly because they have a tendency and a strong reason to block out new information that might threaten in any way, shape or form. So that’s another psychological factor.
Finally, belonging to a social group that believes in certain types of misinformation could strengthen a person’s misinformation “muscle” as well. Since if a person tries to disengage from this belief then it threatens their identity and group membership and as we know from social psychology, absolutely no one wants that. So people believe in misinformation if it helps them maintain their group membership and identity even if disconfirming evidence comes to light.
How Can We Protect People Against Misinformation?
Overall, whilst our understanding of misinformation and who’s most vulnerable to it might still be evolving, there are several things we can do right to help protect people. Firstly, we can start to teach children and people the value of scepticism and critical thinking because that is critical and research shows this is always useful to teach.
Secondly, we can learn how to recognise people sharing misinformation and how these people might be anxious or trying to defend a deeply held belief so that we can help these people by approaching them with empathy, compassion and understanding.
Social Psychology and Misinformation Conclusion
Personally, I flat out love this topic. Misinformation is so critical to understand and protect yourself from because it is everywhere. Which is why personally, I would love going to university to be mandatory since a lot of university courses do teach critical thinking, tolerance and media literacy so it does help people protect themselves against misinformation. But I know that will never happen, especially when there are times that misinformation keeps people in power.
However, in the fight against misinformation, we will never ever get very far if we don’t understand how it spreads, where it comes from and who is most susceptible. This research has to continue and we might have a long, long way to go in fully understanding this, but progress is being made.
And we are already achieving amazing things with this small amount of progress so just imagine all the stunning things we can do when we start to fully understand misinformation.
That really will be an amazing day for sure.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s forensic psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Social Psychology: A Guide To Social And Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Social Psychology and Misinformation references
Cichocka, A., Marchlewska, M., & Biddlestone, M. (2022). Why do narcissists find conspiracy theories so appealing?. Current Opinion in Psychology, 101386.
Vidgen, B. (2021). Who is most vulnerable to health-related misinformation about COVID-19?
The Health Foundation. https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/who-is-most-vulnerable-to-health-related-misinformation-about-covid-19
Digital Planet (2020) The Misinformation Maelstrom: A Mapping of Vulnerability Across America https://sites.tufts.edu/digitalplanet/the-misinformation-maelstrom-a-mapping-of-vulnerability-across-america/
Hutson, M. (2017) Conspiracy Theorists May Really Just Be Lonely. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/conspiracy-theorists-may-really-just-be-lonely/
American Psychological Association (2018) Why We’re Susceptible To fake news, how to defend against it. EurekAlert!. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/498093
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