Confirmation bias goes hand in hand with being human. We, of course, tend to prefer and are more likely to believe things that confirm our worldview rather than things that challenge it. This is particularly important when it comes to the complex web of online information and misinformation.
A new study published in Science Advances reports that both liberals and conservatives more readily believe news stories that favored their side. But conservatives were more likely to believe falsehoods, mostly because there are a lot more viral false stories with a conservative bias.
"Both liberals and conservatives tend to make errors that are influenced by what is good for their side," Kelly Garrett, co-author of the study and professor of communication at The Ohio State University, said in a statement. "But the deck is stacked against conservatives because there is so much more misinformation that supports conservative positions. As a result, conservatives are more often led astray."
The study involved 1,204 American adults Between February and July of 2019. The team collected 20 viral political stories every week, ten of which were true and ten of which were false. The team found that among the high-profile true stories, 65 percent tend to favor issues and candidates preferred by the more left-leaning public against only ten percent favoring the right, with the rest being neutral. When it comes to falsehoods, 45.8 percent of the stories were about right-wing topics and 23.3 benefited the left.
"We saw that viral political falsehoods tended to benefit conservatives, while truths tended to favor liberals. That makes it a lot harder for conservatives to avoid misperceptions," Garrett explained
When the amount of false information is taken into account, conservatives still fare a little worse than liberals in distinguishing fact from fiction. Based on the data from the study, the researchers can’t explain why that is the case.
The work shows that all people were equally good at detecting falsehoods in the news stories that were labeled as politically neutral. But when a story was deemed political, liberals became much better at discerning what was real from what was made up. Conservatives were also more likely to say that all the claims were true.
"Conservatives did not get any worse, but they did not keep up with liberals who were getting better at discerning truths and falsehoods," Garrett explained. "That's a problem because some of the claims were outlandish – there should have been no ambiguity about whether they were true or not."
The study adds to the ongoing discussion on the importance of training people to discern fact from fiction in reporting. Worryingly, in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was shown that people who were overconfident in their ability to identify false news were more susceptible to it, with three-quarters of participants overestimating their ability to tell between real and fake headlines.