Why do fake news spread fast on social media?

Pedro Almeida | July 25, 2018
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Baileigh Allen has just published a really great piece on the link between fake news, emotional arousal and effective communication (The truth, the whole truth & Nothing but fake news – sigh)

She brilliantly bridges the hypothesis that fake stories spread faster on social media due to its emotional component, to the relationship between effective communication, brand building and attitude formation: stimuli that imprint a strong emotional response on consumers become a second skin since emotional arousal is a facilitator of implicit memory formation. That’s why it is hard to correct fake news once they’ve made an impact and that’s why successful communication builds on emotion.

In fact, building from Plutchiks’s perspective on basic emotions, the authors show that false stories (which spread faster) tend to elicit responses significantly higher in surprise, disgust and anger (trend level), whereas true stories elicit responses higher in sadness, anticipation, joy and trust.

Although the authors reinforce the role of surprise, it is interesting to note that disgust and anger represent two-thirds of the Rozin’s CAD (Contempt, Anger, Disgust) model of moral emotions, and are generally considered negative, high arousal, emotions. On a side note, it would be beautiful to test Rozin’s hypothesis that Contempt, Anger and Disgust are elicited by violations related to Community, Autonomy and Divinity. To Baileigh’s point, these high-intensity emotions seem to have a particularly “sticky” evolutionary importance in mobilizing attention and moral outrage and play a role in effective communication – even if for evil purposes in this case.

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Pedro Almeida
Pedro Almeida


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