Spring 2019 > Cover Story

The Truth about Fake News

What Tricks Us into Believing Lies

Living in a digital age and Internet-obsessed societies such as Hong Kong, people link themselves to the Internet and social media via mobile devices for instant news and information, and to stay in touch with friends. While most people in the developed world are accustomed to being digitally linked, Internet dependency has been found to be strongest among millennials and members of Generation Z, who were born into a connected world.

Social media and the powerful “sharing culture” feed us a vast amount of information every single moment, and we are exposed to a wealth of feeds and tweets that can make us weary. Information is often taken at face value, and much of it is shared indiscriminately because we crave “likes” and fear missing out.

What is the consequence? It is possible that we pass on eye-popping news and information without verifying its truthfulness. Prof. Gita JOHAR, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business at Columbia University and IAS Senior Visiting Fellow, takes a closer look at the way people interpret messages and their reluctance to fact check from a consumer psychology perspective.

Seeing is No Longer Believing

Some say that we are mired in an era of “post-truth.” This term was declared Word of the Year 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries, and is defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” If we are now living in a terrifying post-truth reality, did we once live in an era in which we believed in objective facts but not the perceived truth?

Before social media emerged, we accessed news through traditional media such as the press, television, and radio, which we generally believed to be trustworthy. However, a survey released last year indicated that most Americans had lost faith in the media. They considered that 62% of the news they received on traditional media platforms and 80% of that encountered on social media was biased.1

Have the change in the media ecosystem and the emergence of new digital technologies led us astray? Is social media directly to blame for spreading fake news?

Before we jump to conclusions, let’s examine the facts. Social media has only been around for a decade or so, but fake news is nothing new. Hoaxes, planted stories, misleading information, and alternative facts have been familiar terms for many years, and all refer to things that seem legitimate but are in fact fabricated.

According to A Short Guide to the History of ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation published by the International Center for Journalists, fake news has existed since Roman times, and throughout history “misinformation, disinformation and propaganda have been features of human communication.” The term "fake news" has blossomed in recent years, thanks partly to the current US President Donald Trump, who made the term synonymous with “unfavorable news” during the 2016 US presidential election. Some of the most “believable” fake news headlines of 2017, any of which you may have come across, include “Illegal immigrants started California wildfire,” “Palestinians recognize Texas as part of Mexico,” and “Barack and Michelle to divorce.”

Fake news is undoubtedly taking its toll, and the epidemic is far from over. An even more extreme phenomenon is that of “deep fakes”—videos fabricating people’s words or actions through artificial intelligence software. Many politicians and celebrities have fallen victim to widely viewed deep fakes.

The extent of the destruction that fake news or deep fakes could bring is beyond our imagination. So why can’t we see right from wrong and true from false? Have we lost our ability to judge in today’s warp-speed online world? What shapes the way we act online?

How Rumor Cascades

A recent set of studies conducted by Prof. Gita JOHAR and her research group examined the behavior of people who read news in the presence of others versus alone and the motives behind people’s behavior and their reactions to fake news on social media.

In the study, entitled Perceived Social Presence Reduces Fact-Checking,2 2,200 adults in the US participated in a series of experiments that tested how the context in which information is presented affects the willingness to verify ambiguous claims. The results consistently showed that people are less likely to fact-check information encountered when in a group or on social media than information encountered when alone.

In the experiments, the participants evaluated a series of ambiguous statements presented on a website. The statements covered a range of topics, from current events to partisan remarks ostensibly made by political candidates. Half were true and half were false. The participants could rate a given statement as true or false or raise a fact-checking “flag” to determine its accuracy. The participants had the opportunity to earn a bonus on top of their fixed fee for participation. The bonus depended on how well they performed, and its structure varied across experiments but did not affect the overall pattern of the results (e.g., in one experiment, the participants received five cents for a correct answer, lost five cents for each incorrect answer, and neither made nor lost any money through flagging).

In the first experiment, the participants evaluated 36 statements described as news headlines published by a US media organization. Half of the participants saw their own username displayed alone at the side of the screen, and the other half also saw the username of 102 respondents described as currently logged on. The participants flagged (fact-checked) fewer statements when they believed that others were present. Another experiment simulated social presence in a more natural environment. Half of the participants evaluated “news headlines” on the website used in the previous experiment (representing traditional media), whereas the other half read the same headlines in the form of posts by the same organization in a Facebook feed (i.e., on social media). The finding that people flag less often in group settings (vs. alone) was replicated in the traditional media context. However, the participants in the Facebook condition flagged few statements regardless of whether they saw only their own names or others’ names on the screen. In other words, encountering information on social media, an inherently social context, made the participants behave as if they were in a group.

Collective Contexts Suppress Fact-checking

Why do people lower their guard in the presence of others?

Could this be due to a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” which makes individuals less likely to take responsibility for their actions or offer help to a victim when they know others are nearby? People may expect to free-ride on others’ fact-checking efforts, thinking, “If everyone else is verifying this information, I don’t need to.” However, in Johar’s experiments, the participants were unable to rely on others to fact-check for them. The participants’ own performance determined the size of their bonus payment. People may also lower their guard in others’ presence due to the conversational norm or expectation that a speaker is telling the truth. To avoid offending others, the participants in the group experiments may thus have decided not to express skepticism through fact-checking. However, the results of the experiments did not point to a greater belief in the presence of others; they merely indicated lower levels of fact-checking.

Johar suggested another possibility: that being around others automatically lowers our guard. “This is like the herding behavior of animals,” she said. “Animals in the wild hide out and feel safer in herds, and similarly, we feel safer in a crowd.”

Indeed, some research on animal and human behavior has pointed to a “safety in numbers” heuristic in which vigilance is decreased in crowds (or herds), perhaps due to the assumption that any risk encountered will be divided. As fact-checking demands vigilance, a similar heuristic may arise when people are attuned to other individuals’ presence online. Johar found that those who scored high for chronic prevention focus—a trait associated with being habitually cautious and vigilant—were mostly “immune” to the effect of social presence and fact-checked just as much in the company of others as they did alone. When Johar promoted a vigilance mindset by priming a prevention focus, the participants in a group setting flagged nearly twice as many statements as those who had not been primed with vigilance.

Number of statements flagged (i.e. amount of fact-checking) by social presence and platform

According to Johar's experiment, people flagged fewer statements when they saw others on the traditional media site.
This difference disappeared on the social media platform. Regardless of whether they saw others online, participants were less likely to fact-check information when viewing on social media.

Number of statements flagged (i.e. amount of fact-checking) by social presence and induction task

In the control condition, participants fact-checked fewer statements in the presence of others versus by themselves. However, this difference disappeared after exposure to the vigilance induction.
Source: Youjung Jun et al. PNAS 2017; 114:23:5976-5981

\\ If people are reminded that information may be false, they will become more skeptical and vigilant.\\

Fake News Sharers vs. Fact-checkers

The Art of War by SUN Tzu (孫子兵法) teaches us that if you know the enemy and yourself, you are prone to victory in battle. Johar thus examined the main “culprits” in another research project – the fake news sharers. She studied their profiles across five dimensions: demographics, political affiliation, social media usage behavior, emotions, and personality.

In her IAS Distinguished Lecture last November, entitled “Combating Fake News: A Consumer Psychology Perspective,” Johar shared her findings with the audience. She compared fake news sharers and fact-checkers to random Twitter users and individuals who share news from mainstream media outlets. One may think that more intelligent people are less likely to fall for fake news, but Johar argued otherwise.

“Fake news sharers and fact checkers exist beyond demographics and ideology,” said Johar. “Both of them are very active on social media platforms and appear to be motivated by anger and anxiety. But fake news sharers tend to be more often male compared to those in all other groups. They tend to be more conservative and more neurotic, and less conscientious and agreeable compared to the average social media user.”

Johar, an influential scholar in the field of consumer psychology, noted that although there is no quick fix for the spread of misinformation, interventions designed to increase vigilance and reduce anger on social media platforms may offer part of the solution to the problem.

The Battle Continues

The study Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning conducted by the Stanford History Education Group3 examined responses from 7,804 students across 12 US states in 2015 and 2016. It revealed that “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.” They are “easily duped when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels.” Although this finding is alarming, it is not too late to remedy the situation.

In the US, many media and Internet literacy programs have been launched in schools, such as the News Literacy Project, a national nonprofit education program that empowers teachers to develop students’ news literacy skills by teaching them what to believe in the digital age. The French Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education are also stepping up their efforts to teach teenagers to separate facts from fiction, and to take responsibility for how they behave online. ​​​​​

Media platforms and journalists have also called for more scrutiny and fact-checking before news is disseminated. A handbook on journalism education and training entitled Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, states that “journalism also needs to proactively detect and uncover new cases and forms of disinformation.” News media should “tack more closely to professional standards and ethics, to eschew the publishing of unchecked information.”

Combating fake news is a challenge, but there is too much at stake to leave this problem unaddressed. Johar said that “in many countries like India, China, and Myanmar, the spreading of fake news on platforms like WhatsApp is a big problem. People should not share or forward news without verifying its accuracy. If research can identify the profiles of users who are most likely to share inaccurate information, then social platforms can prioritize the screening of posts by these users.” She added, “If people are reminded that information may be false, they will become more skeptical and vigilant. Fake news is a topical problem. I hope that my research will have policy impact and guide policy discussions on how to combat the spread of fake news.”


Gallup and Knight Foundation’s 2017 Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy (2018, June 20). Perceived Accuracy and Bias in the News Media. Retrieved from https://knightfoundation.org/reports/perceived-accuracy-and-bias-in-the-news-media

Youjung Jun, Rachel Meng, & Gita Johar (2017). Perceived Social Presence Reduces Fact-checking, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114 (23), 5976-5981. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/23/5976.full.pdf

Stanford History Education Group (2016, November 22). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Retrieved from https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:fv751yt5934/SHEG%20Evaluating%20Information%20Online.pdf

Prof. Gita Johar

Prof. Johar obtained her MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and her PhD in Marketing from New York University in 1985 and 1993 respectively. She joined Columbia Business School in 1992 and is currently the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business and Chair of the Faculty Steering Committee for the Columbia Global Centers in Mumbai, India.

Her experience in the field of sales and marketing and her interest in social psychology led Johar to specialize in consumer psychology, focusing on how consumers react to marketing efforts, particularly advertising, promotions, and sponsorship. She also examines the influence of consumers’ self-control and identity on their decision making and consumption.

Johar has published several influential articles on consumer persuasion and decision making in leading marketing and psychology journals. She was Co-Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research from July 2014 to December 2017, and has served as Associate Editor for all of the leading marketing journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, and the International Journal of Research in Marketing. She currently serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Marketing, and is co-editing a special issue of the journal Better Marketing for a Better World.

Since her first visit to HKUST in 1997, Johar has worked closely with Prof. Jaideep SENGUPTA, Synergis-Geoffrey YEH Professor of Business, Chair Professor of Marketing, and IAS Senior Fellow, and Prof. Anirban MUKHOPADHYAY, Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Business and Management (Undergraduate Studies), who received his PhD from Columbia University under Johar’s supervision.