46 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2017 Last revised: 2 May 2017
Date Written: April 30, 2017
The 2016 US Presidential Election brought considerable attention to the phenomenon of “fake news”: entirely fabricated and often highly partisan content that is presented as factual news. Disinformation of this sort poses a major threat to democracy. What explains the success of fake news on social media (and elsewhere)? Here we demonstrate one cognitive mechanism that underlies the believability of fake news: familiarity. Prior work on the illusory truth effect has shown that familiarity increases perceived accuracy of entirely plausible and innocuous (but not necessarily true) statements. We ask whether this effect extends to highly implausible and partisan statements. Using actual fake news headlines presented as they are seen on Facebook, we show that the answer is yes: even a single exposure increases perceptions of accuracy, both within the same session and after a week. Moreover, increased perceptions of accuracy for familiar fake news headlines occurs even when the stories are labeled as contested by fact checkers, or are inconsistent with the reader’s political ideology. The effect is also evident when there is no conscious awareness of having previously seen the headline. Collectively, our results indicate familiarity is used heuristically to infer accuracy. Thus, the spread of fake news is supported by persistent low-level cognitive processes that make even highly implausible and partisan claims more believable with repetition. Our results suggest that political echo chambers not only isolate one from opposing views, but also help to create incubation chambers for blatantly false (but highly salient and politicized) fake news stories.
Keywords: Fake News, Illusory Truth, Familiarity, Fluency, Motivated Reasoning, Political Psychology, Media Psychology
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Pennycook, Gordon and Cannon, Tyrone D and Rand, David G., Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News (April 30, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2958246