The Spread of False Information on Social Media

What means do we use to inform ourselves? Do they really help us to be more informed or do they make it more complicated for us? Why does technology sometimes seem to be unhelpful?
The Spread of False Information on Social Media
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 26 October, 2022

It’s somewhat contradictory that, at a time when access to knowledge is so easy, that it’s difficult to get information. In fact, we spend more time checking if certain news is fake than looking for new information. This is magnified on social media, the medium that most people use to keep up to date today.

The issue of fake news and, in general, misinformation, is broad and complex. It’s an evil that needs to be eradicated. However, recognizing it takes time and concentration, so it’s worth spending a while learning how to protect yourself from false information. Above all, to know how not to contribute to its spread.

We’re going to explain the main reasons for people sharing hoaxes on social media, both intentionally and unconsciously, and how to fight against them. The first step is in becoming aware of this reality.

Woman scared by mobile

The intentional dissemination of false information on social media

Those who are dedicated to influencing people to manipulate their behavior, whether for commercial or criminal purposes, know that there are effective ways to take advantage of them. Here’s how they do it:

  • Intentional and selective concealment of information. The media are companies with their own ideologies. Therefore, impartiality is eliminated and they only portray what they want to. The best way of doing this is to give truthful information but trimmed down.
  • Clickbait. This type of headline is one of the most abundant forms of fake news. They appeal to the emotionality of the readers with eye-catching headlines to prevent them from using critical thinking. One example is an ad that tells you “This amazing food will make you lose ten kilos in a week”.
  • Chains and hoaxes. Both on social media and instant messaging, it’s common to find message chains that warn about dangers that aren’t real. The objective is usually to collect data from users, swindle them, or spread false information on a large scale.
  • Manipulated humor. While it’s true that satire has always existed as a political weapon, there’s a difference when it’s used with the aim to disinform. In fact, those who want to influence the opinions of others spread jokes, memes, and humorous publications that intentionally include false information.
  • Deepfakes. This type of digital audiovisual montage requires artificial intelligence programs. They’re incredibly real, making them useful tools for those who want to spread almost unrecognizable lies.

Unintentional spread

Everything mentioned above puts the reader in a clear position: how do they avoid being the vehicle for disseminating false information on social media if everyone is out to deceive them?

The first step is to detect the mental mechanisms on which these hoaxes operate.

Mental shortcuts (heuristics)

Faced with a huge amount of information about events that aren’t experienced in reality, the mind uses cognitive shortcuts. These allow it to process as much as possible without becoming saturated. Given the endless stream of data and news that reaches us through social media, our processing capacity is regulated by the following mechanisms.

  • Representativeness bias. Pigeonholing someone into a category based on new information. For example: “The coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese because they eat bats”.
  • Availability heuristic. A person makes a judgment about the probability of an event happening based on their own experience and knowledge, without taking into account the rest of the information. For instance, “Once a man touched my ass in a nightclub, so if I go to a gay joint, all the homosexuals are going to harass me.”
  • Anchoring bias. Forming opinions and making decisions based on initial information. An example of this is the illegal immigration figures. Indeed, they’re often presented as an invasion of millions of evil people, when in reality they’re few and the people are both ordinary and inoffensive. However, people don’t stop to look for the true facts.

Lack of attention

The current design of social media platforms is based on bombarding the user with massive amounts of information. The ability to react to it immediately and share it with a single flick of the finger also encourages people to automate its spread without even checking it.

The illusion of knowledge

If you know a lot about a certain subject, you’ll probably have realized that the people who know the least about it are usually the ones who are most sure of their knowledge. This paradox is known as the illusion of knowledge and it’s dangerous. In fact, much of the false information that circulates through the Internet tries to make users believe that what they offer is all that’s needed on the subject.

Man working on the computer

How to avoid spreading false information on social media

First of all, never disable your critical thinking. Make sure you question any information that reaches you. It’s simply a matter of checking its authenticity.

Furthermore, try and live more slowly. While the system will try and prevent you from doing this, you simply need to stop for a second before each piece of data you see and ask yourself “Is this true?”. Your search for verification will entail effort and time which will protect you from continuing to swallow information without a filter.

Disinformation, sensationalism, and the manipulation of the masses have always existed. The current problem isn’t so much its existence (although this is an issue), but rather that false information has found an unlimited distribution channel on social media and, in general, on the Internet. For this reason, in a world where our filters have to be both individual and diverse, and official regulation is something of a joke, the only useful tool is our own accountability.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pennycook, G., Epstein, Z., Mosleh, M., Arechar, A. A., Eckles, D., & Rand, D. G. (2021). Shifting attention to accuracy can reduce misinformation online. Nature592(7855), 590-595.
  • Montero-Liberona, C., & Halpern, D. (2019). Factores que influyen en compartir noticias falsas de salud online. Profesional de la Información28(3).
  • Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases: Biases in judgments reveal some heuristics of thinking under uncertainty. Science185(4157), 1124-1131.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.