Why Fake News Targeted Trump Supporters

Multiple studies suggest social conservatives are more attuned to threats—even when they are not real.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

One of the few comforts liberals had in the aftermath of the election was the anecdotal reporting that fake-news purveyors found it easier to get conservatives to believe their baloney.

As one such fake-news entrepreneur, responsible for articles with headlines like, “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide,” told NPR: "We’ve tried to do [fake news with] liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out."

No doubt this served as a signal, to some, that if fake news works better on Trump supporters, it must be because liberals are smarter than conservatives. “I can safely binge-drink the next four years away,” some liberals might have thought, “since I have all these extra brain cells to burn.”

Well, not quite. According to a study slated to be published in the journal Psychological Science, it might be true that conservatives are more likely to fall for false, threatening-seeming information, but it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re hyper-attuned to hazards in their world. If they spot a sign of danger, they figure trusting it is better than ignoring it.

Daniel Fessler, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, led a study in which two sets of subjects read a series of 16 statements, most of which were false, but all of which sounded like they could be true. Some of them focused more on the (fake) benefits of doing something, such as “Exercising on an empty stomach burns more calories,” while others focused on risks, such as, “terrorist attacks in the U.S. have increased since Sept 11, 2001.”

The researchers had the subjects rate how true they believed the statements were. Then, he assessed how “liberal” or “conservative” they were, asking them whether they believed “society works better when people live according to traditional values,” for example, or whether they “agree” with topics like pornography or school prayer, and of course, whether they actually identify as a Republican or Democrat.

There was no difference when it came to the “beneficial” statements—conservatives and liberals were equally likely to believe those. But the researchers found that compared to the liberals, conservative participants were more likely to believe the statements about hazards. And surprisingly, this difference was driven by their views on social issues, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Economic issues, such as a fondness for tax cuts, didn’t make a difference. “Fiscal conservatism is not about traditionalism,” Fessler said. “It’s an accident of American politics that [social and fiscal conservatism] happen to be stuck together” in the same party.

Fessler and his co-authors, UCLA’s Colin Holbrook and Anne Pisor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, write that in general, people tend to believe information about risks more than they do the possibility of benefits. (Insert the standard evolutionary explanation that fleeing from a rustle in the bushes would typically turn out better for our caveman ancestors than brushing it off.) And, things seem more true when they’re about risks rather than benefits. Past studies have shown, for instance, that people of all political viewpoints are more likely to believe that 85 percent of rape attempts are successful than they are to believe that 15 percent of rape attempts are unsuccessful.

But several studies show that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to the possibility of danger than liberals are. That helps explain why conservatives endorse policies that minimize the introduction of new, potentially harmful influences to society, like immigration, gay marriage, or comprehensive sex education. “Conservatives approach the situation from the start with greater reactivity to threat, a greater prior belief to the level of danger in the world, so it is logical for the conservative to take more seriously information about hazards than the liberal does,” Fessler told me.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: When there are real threats, this reflex would help people stay safe. It’s just that when the threats are made up or exaggerated—as they were in so many fake news stories before the election or in many of Trump’s tweets—people can be misled.

Fessler illustrates this with the example of how, in 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor a routine military training exercise after rumors swirled that President Obama was attempting to put Texas under martial law. More recently, polls have shown that about half of Americans support banning immigration from “terror-prone” regions of the world, even though non-Muslim terrorists have killed nearly twice as many Americans since 2001 than Islamic extremists have. Fessler writes that, led by their tendency to believe information about risks, many social conservatives might have fallen for Trump’s false, alarmist rhetoric, such as his claim that “inner-city crime is reaching record levels.” (It’s actually dropped precipitously since the 1990s).

Robert Mather, a conservative social psychologist at the University of Central Oklahoma, praised the study but said its measure of conservatism might be overly simplistic. For example, he said, Fessler writes that “liberals value the opportunities afforded by change ... whereas conservatives value the safety of tradition and cultural homogeneity.” But it was, after all, conservatives who voted Trump into office and took a major chance on someone with no political experience. “Currently conservatives are finding very innovative ways to violate the safety of the tradition of the last eight years, which is at odds with the above definition,” Mather said. “The basic definitions of conservatives by social scientists usually omit the reality that conservatives can be, and often are, agents of change.”

And it’s worth noting that sensitivity to risk is not the only difference between liberals and conservatives that might explain the rise of right-oriented fake news. As Christopher Ingraham wrote for The Washington Post, other researchers have found that liberals tend to have a greater “need for cognition,” or an interest in thinking critically. Some studies have found correlations between support for Republican candidates and endorsement of nonsense statements like, "attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

Again, it’s not that liberals are smarter, as Ulm University’s Stefan Pfattheicher told the Post. "This seems to be more a matter of motivation to process information (or news) in a critical, reflective thinking style than the ability to do so.”

And other studies have found that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe conspiracy theories that align with their beliefs, which might explain both the trust in some of the statements in Fessler’s study and the spread of Trumpland-baiting fake news.

Fessler says those explanations are compatible with his study and possibly even amplify its effects. “What need for cognition is measuring is the extent to which you set aside your gut responses,” he said. “You could imagine that people who are reactive to threats are lower on their need for cognition, so there’s a synergy between those two factors.”

I asked Fessler if there’s any way to prevent the spread of misleading, alarmist information. The short answer? Not really.

Facebook, where nearly half of Americans get their news, has already cracked down somewhat on dubious news sites, but it could ban them outright. But people would still have to trust the objective sites it promotes or evaluate the objective information for themselves, Fessler says. “This is a difficult problem in an era in which influential figures are urging their followers to distrust such third parties,” he said, “and, at the same time, are not encouraging careful evaluation of objective information—or are even claiming it is not objective at all.”

In other words, when Trump uses an African-American history month appearance to lambast CNN as "very hostile” “fake news,” and claim that an erroneous, swiftly corrected pool report was “a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate,” he isn’t helping his followers distinguish fact from fiction. Very unfortunate.