The 2016 U.S. federal election was tainted by online messages that made false claims, also called "fake news," about candidates and issues. One website circulated the false claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president. Although the Pope denied the claim shortly after it was made, by election day it had been shared 960,000 times on Facebook, according to Buzzfeed.
Canada had a scandal of a similar type during its 2011 federal election. A campaign worker used robobcalls to deliver false information about where and when voting was to take place on election day, with the apparent intention of suppressing voter turnout.
It's become clear that false claims have been increasing dramatically in quantity and occurring at times other than the periods leading up to elections. Online false claims generally originate on a website and then spread quickly on social media.
The question remains as to why people seem willing to suspend their doubts and believe false claims they read online.
A key reason comes to us courtesy of insights gained from research about online advertising. It turns out that the credibility or believability of an online claim is increased if it is personalized. When people receive a personalized online ad, they tend to believe the ad is more credible than if it had not been personalized. In turn, ad creadibility leads to three changes in perception about ads. People reduce their avoidance of ads, decrease their skepticism about the content of the ads, and increase the general favoribility with which they view ads.
Personalization is accomplished by gathering and using information about your online behaviour. A personalized ad can take into account your location, an exchange of messages you've had recently with a friend or family member, and your recent purchases. For example, a personalized ad can encourage you to buy a product that you already know about, which a family member has talked to you about, and which is for sale nearby.
The same principle can apply to other online messages besides ads. A personalized message delivering fake news can be made more credible, just like an ad. With customization, online messages that make false claims can be made to seem more believable than they otherwise would be. The critical instincts of skepticism and avoidance are reduced as a consequence of personalizing messages about politics or other topics of broad interest.
What can be done to reduce the likelihood that we fall for fake news? First, try to reduce the amount and detail of personal information that you make available. Second, think critically and check sources. Keep your critical skills alive and active by applying some skepticism, even to the point of avoidance, for claims that you sense may be false or misleading. Messages offering fake news often include obvious clues about their poor credibility, such as typos or a lack of confirmation in other media channels.
The problem of false claims is important because it concerns all the information that is posted, circulated, and consumed. False claims have the general effect of degrading the reliability of everything we read and view online. Knowing how false claims find a way into our beliefs is the first step in resisting and eliminating them.
Source: Tran, T. (2017). Personalized ads on Facebook: An effective marketing tool for online marketers. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 39, 230-42.