Misinformation and Morality: Encountering Fake-News Headlines Makes Them Seem Less Unethical to Publish and Share

Effron, Daniel A.; Raj, Medha
Psychological Science

People may repeatedly encounter the same misinformation when it “goes viral.” The results of four main experiments (two preregistered) and a pilot experiment (total N = 2,587) suggest that repeatedly encountering misinformation makes it seem less unethical to spread—regardless of whether one believes it. Seeing a fake-news headline one or four times reduced how unethical participants thought it was to publish and share that headline when they saw it again—even when it was clearly labeled as false and participants disbelieved it, and even after we statistically accounted for judgments of how likeable and popular it was. In turn, perceiving the headline as less unethical predicted stronger inclinations to express approval of it online. People were also more likely to actually share repeated headlines than to share new headlines in an experimental setting. We speculate that repeating blatant misinformation may reduce the moral condemnation it receives by making it feel intuitively true, and we discuss other potential mechanisms that might explain this effect.