An Ocean of Possible Truth: Biased Processing of News on Social Media

47 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2018 Last revised: 23 Oct 2019

Date Written: October 1, 2018


The digital information environment offers a wide variety of factual claims from a diverse spectrum of sources. Citizens face the constant challenge whether to believe and disseminate the claims they encounter. What factors drive belief and sharing of factual information? While previous scholarship on political knowledge and information processing has explored oft-discussed factual questions, this paper focuses on questions as they daily arise in the news. Predictions are derived from the theory of motivated reasoning, which suggests that people process factual information in terms of congruence with their attitudes, and the source credibility literature, which implies that the prominence of sources should influence information processing. Expectations were tested in two original survey experiments in Germany. Study 1 (n = 418) explored the effects of attitudinal congruence and source prominence on belief, by exposing subjects to constructed news reports (on the welfare state, domestic security, migration and European integration) presented as Facebook posts. Three out of four topics show a strong impact of attitudinal congruence, with no source effect. For the fourth topic, the reverse is the case, which suggests that people either resort to their attitudes or take a source cue, depending on the topic. Study 2 (n = 1964) analyzed tendencies to share a news report (on migration) via email, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. Again, attitudinal congruence plays a greater role than the type of source, although dynamics are more complex for sharing on Twitter.

Keywords: Factual beliefs, motivated reasoning, source credibility, social media

Suggested Citation

Clemm von Hohenberg, Bernhard, An Ocean of Possible Truth: Biased Processing of News on Social Media (October 1, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Bernhard Clemm von Hohenberg (Contact Author)

European University Institute ( email )

Villa Schifanoia
133 via Bocaccio
Firenze (Florence), Tuscany 50014

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