Cognitive attraction and online misinformation

Abstract

The spread of online misinformation has gained mainstream attention in recent years. This paper approaches this phenomenon from a cultural evolution and cognitive anthropology perspective, focusing on the idea that some cultural traits can be successful because their content taps into general cognitive preferences. This research involves 260 articles from media outlets included in two authoritative lists of websites known for publishing hoaxes and ‘fake news’, tracking the presence of negative content, threat-related information, presence of sexually related material, elements associated to disgust, minimally counterintuitive elements (and a particular category of them, i.e., violations of essentialist beliefs), and social information, intended as presence of salient social interactions (e.g., gossip, cheating, formation of alliances), and as news about celebrities. The analysis shows that these features are, to a different degree, present in most texts, and thus that general cognitive inclinations may contribute to explain the success of online misinformation. This account can elucidate questions such as whether and why misinformation online is thriving more than accurate information, or the role of ‘fake news’ as a weapon of political propaganda. Online misinformation, while being an umbrella term covering many different phenomena, can be characterised, in this perspective, not as low-quality information that spreads because of the inefficiency of online communication, but as high-quality information that spreads because of its efficiency. The difference is that ‘quality’ is not equated to truthfulness but to psychological appeal.

Publication
Acerbi, A. (2019), Cognitive attraction and online misinformation, Palgrave Communications, 5, 15

I wrote a presentation of the research behind the paper in this blog post.

An article (in Italian) summarising the paper.

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Alberto Acerbi

Cultural Evolution / Cognitive Anthropology / Computational Social Science