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Computers in Human Behavior

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“This is fake news”: Investigating the role of conformity to other users’ views when commenting on and spreading disinformation in social media Jonas Colliander Center for Retailing, Stockholm School of Economics, P.O. Box 6501, SE-113 83, Stockholm, Sweden


Keywords: Fake news Online disinformation Conformity Self-concept Disclaimers


This study examines the effects of conformity to others online when individuals respond to fake news. It finds that after exposure to others’ comments critical of a fake news article, individuals’ attitudes, propensity to make positive comments and intentions to share the fake news were lower than after exposure to others’ comments supportive of a fake news article. Furthermore, this research finds that the use of a disclaimer from a social media company alerting individuals to the fact that the news might be fake does not lower individuals’ attitudes, propensity to make positive comments and intentions to share the fake news as much as critical comments from other users.

1. Introduction

On December 4, 2016, 29-year old Edgar Maddison Welch fired a military style assault rifle inside the popular Washington D.C. Comet Ping Pong restaurant. Mr. Welch had set out to rescue children he be- lieved were held there in a child abuse scheme led by Hillary Clinton. The theory, known as “Pizzagate”, stemmed from unfounded but widespread online reports. Rather than finding any children, however, Mr. Welch found himself in handcuffs. He was convicted to four years in prison and later confessed in an interview with the New York Times that “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent.”

Indeed, it wasn’t. But the concern among researchers, journalists and politicians about the effects of online disinformation is. The pro- blem is rampant. A recent study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 23% of Americans had knowingly or unknowingly shared a made- up news story (Pew Research Center, 2016). Furthermore, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the most popular made-up news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular authentic news stories (Silverman, 2016). Some commentators have even sug- gested that online disinformation played a deciding role in that election (e.g. Dewey, 2016; Parkinson, 2016; Read, 2016).

Online disinformation has been defined by Lazer et al. (2018) as “false information that is purposely spread to deceive people.” (p. 2). As such, it overlaps with the definition of fake news, given by Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) as “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers” (p. 213). Increasingly the topic of public debate, fake news has been investigated by researchers from a variety of angles. One is studies into the prevalence of the problem. For

instance, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) studied Americans’ level of ex- posure to fake news during 2016 U.S. presidential election and which segments of the population that believed in them. In another example, Watanabe (2017) studied the spread of Russian disinformation in western news media during the Ukraine crisis. Another area of research is how fake news travel within social networks. For instance, Vasoughi, Roy, and Aral (2018) investigated how false and true news spread on- line. A third stream of research into misinformation and fake news is that of corrections and debunking. Research into these areas have pri- marily investigated how misperceptions spread through disinformation can be reduced by statements of correction from various sources. Bode and Vraga (2018), for instance, studied how misperceptions spread by health disinformation in social media were reduced by the presentation of correct facts by either algorithms or other social media users. Nyhan and Reifler (2010), on the other hand, concluded that corrections often fail and sometimes increase misperceptions when certain ideological groups have been presented with political misinformation. In a meta- study, Chan, Jones, Jamieson, and Alberracin (2017), also concluded that more detailed debunking is positively correlated with a debunking effect.

This research is intended to add to the research on debunking dis- information and fake news. However, it takes a step back from the research mentioned above in that it investigates not the effects of presenting counterfactuals to fake news, but rather the effects of the far more common occurrence of simply pointing out to readers that it is fake news. Specifically, this research examines what effect it has on individuals exposed to fake news that other users take a stand against the disinformation and identifies it as such through the comment Received 4 December 2018; Received in revised form 1 March 2019; Accepted 25 March 2019

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Computers in Human Behavior 97 (2019) 202–215

Available online 28 March 2019 0747-5632/ © 2019 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.



function. Given the state of many comment threads to fake news, which are less about correcting the disinformation and more about simple statements either supporting or attacking both the story and the person posting it, the lack of research investigating the many facets of such simple statements is conspicuous. Therefore, the present research con- sists of two experimental studies on this phenomenon. Study 1 in- vestigates whether readers of disinformation, upon seeing comments from others either supporting the fake news story or opposing it by attacking the news story or the original poster, respectively, are more likely to a) have a more positive or negative attitude towards the fake news b) make comments of either support or opposition to the fake news and c) share the fake news story on social media. Study 2 in- vestigates the same behavior among respondents when they are ex- posed to other users’ comment of either support or opposition to a fake news story. However, it also compares the effect of other users’ com- ments identifying the news as fake with the use of an official Facebook disclaimer stating that the fake news story is disputed by independent fact checkers. Taken together, the two studies are intended to shine a few rays of light on the effects and importance of other users in pre- venting the spread of fake news online.

Beyond simply focusing on the simpler ways in which users in social media can debunk fake news this research makes two additional con- tributions. Firstly, it introduces additional dependent variables in the form of the attitude towards the fake news, the likelihood of com- menting in various ways on the fake news and the sharing the fake news. Previous research on debunking have focused mainly on cor- recting the misconceptions (caused by disinformation) of respondents. Important as that may be, another stated goal of policymakers and social media companies alike is to stop the spread of fake news. This research is intended to help in that pursuit by investigating the three dependent variables mentioned above. Secondly, it explores whether other ways of disputing the accuracy of fake news, such as disclaimers from social media companies, has a similar effect on readers as the actions of other users.

Structurally, the rest of this article is straightforward. It begins with reviews of conformity and the self-concept, which are the theoretical foundations of this research. That is followed by the hypothesis devel- opment and a description of the two studies. Lastly, conclusions and implications for both researchers and practitioners are discussed.

2. Theoretical background and hypotheses

2.1. Conformity

Conformity is the act of matching one’s behavior to the responses of others (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). Conformity has been found to be a powerful social phenomenon as individuals are often found to conform to the behaviors of others even when the actions of those other in- dividuals run contrary to individuals own convictions, such as in the classic experiments by Asch (1956). Subsequent research has also de- monstrated that even our memories are affected by exposure to the recollections of others (Edelson, Sharot, Dolan, & Dudai, 2011) Deutsch and Gerard (1955) made a distinction between informational and normative motivations for conformity. Informational motivations are driven by a desire to interpret reality in an accurate way whereas normative motivations are based on the desire to obtain social approval from others. More contemporary research has largely upheld these findings. The overview by Cialdini and Goldstein (2004), underscores the importance of conformity in gaining social approval, stating that “individuals often engage in … conscious and deliberate attempts to gain the social approval of others, to build rewarding relationships with them, and in the process, to enhance their self-esteem. Conformity

offers such an opportunity” (p. 610). Interestingly, Williams, Cheung, and Choi (2000) concluded that conformity still occurs among anon- ymous internet users.

2.2. Self-concept

The self-concept is an individual’s collection of beliefs about him or herself, generally answering the question of ‘who am I’? (Meyers, 2009). Individuals tend to conceptualize themselves in accordance with two basic aspects of human beings: agency and communion (Wiggins, 1991). Agency represents such personal interests and values as self- assertion, self-improvement and self- esteem. Communion, conversely, is about social bonding, connections with others, cooperation and care for others (Nam, Lee, Youn, & Kwon, 2016). Agentic individuals are dispositioned to show a more self-centered behavior and focus on dif- ferentiating themselves from others. Communal individuals, on the other hand, are more likely to be a part of a group and form social connections (Wiggins, 1991). Cialdini and Trost (1998) state that all individuals share a strong need to enhance the self-concept. This is done by behaving consistently with their statements, actions, beliefs, com- mitments and self-ascribed traits. One of the ways in which this man- ifests itself is by the consumption by individuals of products that cor- respond with their self-concept as a means of self-expression (Braun, Ellis, & Loftus, 2002). Another is the way individuals behave and write online in response to comments from other internet users (Colliander & Wien, 2013).

2.3. Hypotheses development

Here, it is proposed that due to conformity and the desire to maintain a positive self-concept, respondents who are exposed to comments identifying a fake news story as such have a more negative attitude towards the news story, are more likely to critically comment on the story and are less likely to spread it through their own social channels. Furthermore, it is proposed that due to the critical role of the self-concept, these tendencies are especially pronounced when the comments from other users include personal attacks on the poster of the original story. Several authors have documented the power of con- formity in online behavior. Zhu and Huberman (2014), for instance, demonstrated that consumers tend to shift their preferences in an online setting when faced with the recommendations of others. Breitsohl, Wilcox-Jones, and Harris (2015) found support for a groupthink men- tality in online communities. Tsikerdekis (2013), meanwhile, found that conforming to the opinions of the group occurred irrespective of the levels of anonymity that users perceived themselves as having. Specifically investigating online news contexts, Winter, Bruckner, and Krämer (2015) found evidence of the social influence of others com- ments when judging stories online. Other researchers have demon- strated that conformity extend beyond the mental dimension and affect actions online. In a comprehensive study involving the analysis of on- line discussion forums as well as four experiments, Hamilton, Schlosser, and Chen (2017) found that commenting is significantly affected by the need for affiliation. Therefore, commenters online were likely to con- form their writings to already existing comments.

Based on this body of evidence, it is likely that when people are exposed to comments critical of a fake news story (rather than sup- portive comments), they will gain a more negative attitude towards the fake news story, and will be more likely to themselves comment criti- cally (rather than in a supportive manner). Moreover, Cialdini and Goldstein (2004) state that “people are frequently motivated to con- form to others’ beliefs and behaviors in order to enhance, protect or repair their self-esteems” (p. 611). Colliander and Wien (2013),

J. Colliander Computers in Human Behavior 97 (2019) 202–215




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