Understanding the Psychology of Disinformation

In September 2023, only one month after deadly wildfires devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, a video appeared on social media purporting to show families in Lahaina, Maui being forcibly removed from their land by the police. The video was widely shared on social media with many expressing outrage and heartbreak over the treatment of these families in the aftermath of the wildfires. However, as fact-checkers soon reported, the footage was not taken in Maui in 2023, but was clipped from a 1985 documentary about Hawaiians living on Waimanalo Beach Park on the island of Oahu. 

The success of this seemingly unsophisticated effort is not entirely surprising. As humans, we share certain psychological vulnerabilities that can make us susceptible to believing false narratives. Purveyors of disinformation take advantage of these vulnerabilities to temporarily bypass our critical thinking skills. As a result, we may share or amplify disinformation before considering its credibility.

Below are some of the most common ways bad actors employ psychology to craft and spread false narratives. Familiarizing yourself with these techniques can help you—and your audience—to better anticipate, detect, and defend against disinformation. 

Eliciting heightened emotions. It’s estimated that the average American makes around 35,000 decisions per day, making it impossible to critically evaluate each one. Disinformation takes advantage of our decision fatigue by appealing to heightened emotions that further impair our ability to think critically. Under the influence of an intense emotional response, such as outrage, fear, or empathy, we’re more likely to share a story—and our thoughts and feelings about it—before taking the time to critically evaluate it. 

Appealing to our confirmation bias. Our brains rely on mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, to help us quickly gather and evaluate information (and make some of those 35,000 daily decisions). One of these shortcuts, confirmation bias, encourages us to pay attention to information that conforms with our existing beliefs and thought patterns. Purveyors of disinformation seek to give credence to their content by targeting common biases and preconceptions. By telling us what we’re already motivated to believe, they trigger our information processing shortcuts and discourage us from critical thinking.

Alleviating cognitive dissonance. Just as confirmation bias urges us to accept information that conforms to our beliefs, cognitive dissonance encourages us to reject information that challenges those beliefs. For example, if someone purchases a car on the basis that a particular make and model is the most reliable and carries the highest resale value, that person may be reluctant to accept the results of a credible study that scores the make and model low in both categories. If then presented with a false headline denouncing the credibility of the study and accusing the researchers of manipulating data, the owner may be more likely to accept the accusations as true without independently evaluating them. In this way, bad actors look to take advantage of cognitive dissonance to deny or cast doubt on credible information that contradicts particular beliefs or worldviews. 

Wrapping false claims around a kernel of truth. Even the most seemingly implausible conspiracy theories often include a kernel of truth, which lends a sense of credence and legitimacy to their otherwise dubious claims. For example, the video purporting to show recent evictions in Maui contained at least one kernel of truth: it was actual footage of Hawaiian families being forcibly removed from their land by the police. The legitimacy of the events depicted in the video (if not the time and location of the events) is designed to lull viewers into a false sense of certainty and to deter them from evaluating the accuracy of the entire claim.

Creating the illusory truth effect. Our brains are more likely to believe information that can be processed quickly and easily. The greater our familiarity with something, the more easily, or fluently, we process it. Because repetition creates familiarity, when we’ve been exposed to information so frequently that it becomes familiar to us, we are increasingly more likely to believe that it’s true, even if we’ve been told that it’s false. This is known as the illusory truth effect. Purveyors of disinformation attempt to generate this familiarity by repeating the same fraudulent claims in story after story. Then, using the psychological “hacks” described above, they encourage us to share and amplify that disinformation. With repeated exposure, many will come to accept the false narrative as fact, even if they originally doubted its accuracy.

For more information on how journalists can utilize psychology to fight against mis- and disinformation, check out these recommendations from the National Press Club Journalism Institute, including a 2022 webinar for journalists hosted by PEN America, the American Psychological Association, and the National Press Club Journalism Institute: Disinformation, Midterms & the Mind: How psychology can help journalists fight misinformation.

What’s missing?

Facts Forward is a collaborative effort. If you have questions, suggestions to improve this resource or others, or want to highlight disinformation reporting done well, please send an email to factsforward[@]pen.org.

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