The Psychological Appeal of Fake-News Attributions

Axt, Jordan R.; Landau, Mark J.; Kay, Aaron C.
Psychological Science

The term fake news is increasingly used to discredit information from reputable news organizations. We tested the possibility that fake-news claims are appealing because they satisfy the need to see the world as structured. Believing that news organizations are involved in an orchestrated disinformation campaign implies a more orderly world than believing that the news is prone to random errors. Across six studies (N > 2,800), individuals with dispositionally high or situationally increased need for structure were more likely to attribute contested news stories to intentional deception than to journalistic incompetence. The effect persisted for stories that were ideologically consistent and ideologically inconsistent and after analyses controlled for strength of political identification. Political orientation showed a moderating effect; specifically, the link between need for structure and belief in intentional deception was stronger for Republican participants than for Democratic participants. This work helps to identify when, why, and for whom fake-news claims are persuasive.