Are you a purveyor of fake news? People who are most confident about their ability to discern between fact and fiction are also the most likely to fall victim to misinformation, a US study suggests.
Although Americans believe the confusion caused by false news is all-pervasive, relatively few indicate having seen or shared it, something the researchers suggested shows that many may not only have a hard time identifying false news but are not aware of their own deficiencies at doing so.
Nine out of 10 participants surveyed indicated they were above average in their ability to discern false and legitimate news headlines. About a fifth of respondents rated themselves 50 or more percentiles higher than their score warranted, the analysis of a nationally representative study of data collected during and after the 2018 US midterm elections found.
In the survey, 8,285 Americans were asked to evaluate the accuracy of a series of Facebook headlines, and then rate their own abilities in discerning false news content relative to others.
When researchers looked at data measuring respondents’ online behaviour, those with inflated perceptions of their abilities more frequently visited websites linked to the spread of false or misleading news. The overconfident participants were also less able to distinguish between true and false claims about current events and reported higher willingness to share false content, especially when it aligned with their political predispositions, the authors found.
“No matter what domain, people on average are overconfident … but over 70% of people displaying overconfidence is just such a huge number,” said the lead author, Ben Lyons, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah.
Although the study does not prove that overconfidence directly causes engagement with false news, the mismatch between a person’s perceived ability to spot misinformation and their actual competence could play a crucial role in the spread of false information, the authors wrote in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
It also suggests that those who are humble – people who tend to engage in self-monitoring, reflective behaviours and put more thought into the sites they visit and content they share – are likely to be less susceptible to misinformation, said Lyons.
Factors such as gender also played a key role in the likelihood of overconfidence and, in turn, vulnerability to false news, suggested Lyons.
“Male respondents [in the study] displayed more overconfidence – and this is a consistent finding in overconfidence literature – men are always more confident than women, which is always not so surprising.”
He added: “Overconfidence is truly universal. I would be shocked if we didn’t find this in every country we looked at … although we might not see this extreme level of overconfidence, just based on cultural differences.”