Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News

Forthcoming in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

61 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2017 Last revised: 10 May 2018

See all articles by Gordon Pennycook

Gordon Pennycook

University of Regina

Tyrone Cannon

Yale University

David G. Rand

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Date Written: May 3, 2018


The 2016 US Presidential Election brought considerable attention to the phenomenon of “fake news”: entirely fabricated and often partisan content that is presented as factual. Here we demonstrate one mechanism that contributes to the believability of fake news: fluency via prior exposure. Using actual fake news headlines presented as they were seen on Facebook, we show that even a single exposure increases subsequent perceptions of accuracy, both within the same session and after a week. Moreover, this “illusory truth effect” for fake news headlines occurs despite a low level of overall believability, and even when the stories are labeled as contested by fact-checkers or are inconsistent with the reader’s political ideology. These results suggest that social media platforms help to incubate belief in blatantly false news stories, and that tagging such stories as disputed is not an effective solution to this problem. Interestingly, however, we also find that prior exposure does not impact entirely implausible statements (e.g., “The Earth is a perfect square”). These observations indicate that although extreme implausibility is a boundary condition of the illusory truth effect, only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy. As a consequence, the scope and impact of repetition on beliefs is greater than previously assumed.

Keywords: Fake News, Illusory Truth, Familiarity, Fluency, Motivated Reasoning, Political Psychology, Media Psychology

Suggested Citation

Pennycook, Gordon and Cannon, Tyrone and Rand, David G., Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News (May 3, 2018). Forthcoming in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Available at SSRN: or

Gordon Pennycook (Contact Author)

University of Regina ( email )

3737 Wascana Parkway
Regina, Saskatchewan S4S OA2 S4S 0A1

Tyrone Cannon

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

David G. Rand

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States


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