News Release

Rewarding accuracy instead of partisan pandering reduces Republican-Democrat divide over the truth – study

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Cambridge

Offering a tiny cash reward for accuracy, or even briefly appealing to personal integrity, can increase people’s ability to tell the difference between misinformation and the truth, according to a new study.

The findings suggest that fake news thrives on social media not only because people are tricked into believing it, but also due to a motivational imbalance: users have more incentive to get clicks and likes than to spread accurate content. 

Social psychologists from the University of Cambridge and New York University argue that their study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, highlights the “perverse incentives” driving shares on social media – particularly in “divisive political climates” such as the United States.

They say the psychological pull of pandering to one’s own “in-group” by attacking the other side of a social and political divide is a significant – and often neglected – factor for why so many believe and choose to spread misinformation, or disbelieve accurate news.  

The study involved four experiments with a total of over 3,300 people from the United States, with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The researchers offered half of participants up to one US dollar if they correctly pointed out true or false headlines, and compared the results to those offered no incentive.

This tiny sum was enough to make people 31% better at discerning true from fake news. The best results came when participants were asked to identify accurate news that benefited the opposing political party.

In fact, the financial incentive reduced partisan division between Republican and Democrat over the truthfulness of news by around 30%. The majority of this shift occurred on the Republican side.

For example, the offer of up to a dollar made Republicans 49% more likely to report that the accurate Associated Press headline ‘Facebook removes Trump ads with symbols once used by Nazis’ was indeed true. A dollar made Democrats 20% more likely to report the Reuters headline 'Plant a trillion trees: U.S. Republicans offer fossil-fuel friendly climate fix' as accurate.

However, in another experiment, researchers inverted the set-up to “mirror the social media environment” by paying participants to identify the headlines likely to get the best reception from members of the same political party. The ability to spot misinformation reduced by 16%.

“This is not just about ignorance of facts among the public. It is about a social media business model that rewards the spread of divisive content regardless of accuracy,” said lead author Dr Steve Rathje, who conducted the work while he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

“By motivating people to be accurate instead of appealing to those in the same political group, we found greater levels of agreement between Republicans and Democrats about what is actually true.”

Previous research by the same team has shown that attacking political rivals is one of the most effective ways to go viral on Twitter and Facebook.

“Shifting the motivations to post on social media could help rebuild some of the shared reality lost to political polarisation in many nations, including the United States,” said senior author Prof Sander van der Linden, director of the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab.    

In one of the study’s experiments, half the participants were simply exposed to a short piece of text reminding them that people value truth, and falsehoods can hurt reputations. They were also told they would receive feedback on accuracy rates.

While this did not have the same effect as a small pay out, it still increased the perceived accuracy of true but politically inconvenient news by 25% compared to a control group.

“A short piece of text nudging users to consider the social value of truth could be deployed at scale by social media corporations,” said van der Linden.   

Jay Van Bavel, Professor of Psychology at New York University and co-author of the study, said: “It is not possible to pay everyone on the internet to share more accurate information. However, we can change aspects of social media platform design to help motivate people to share content they know to be accurate.”

Providing incentives improved the accuracy of news judgements across the political spectrum, but had a much stronger effect on Republican voters.

The team point to previous research showing that Republicans tend to believe in and share more misinformation than Democrats. In the latest study, payment incentives brought Republicans far closer to the accuracy levels of Democrats – shrinking the political divide.  

“Recent lawsuits have revealed that Fox News hosts shared false claims about ‘stolen’ elections to retain viewers, despite privately disavowing these conspiracy theories. Republican media ecosystems have proved more willing to harness misinformation for profit in recent years,” said Van der Linden, author of the new book Foolproof: why we fall for misinformation and how to build immunity.

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