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Columbia Research Illuminates Unconscious Cause of Fake News

Columbia fake news

Fake news, the most oft-repeated phrase of 2017, doesn’t just rise out of some malevolent direction. According to Columbia Business School, there are many social factors hidden in the process.

Fake news has become an epidemic of sorts, as the recent investigation into how Russia used divisive Facebook posts to possibly influence the presidential election demonstrates, planted stories can have a “powerful and multiplying effect” due to their circulation on social media. Reportedly, fake news possibly impacted elections France and Kenya, as well.

Gita Johar, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, along with doctoral students Youjung Jun and Rachel Meng, published research entitled Perceived Social Presence Reduces Fact-Checking in which they discovered that people are less likely to investigate the veracity of ambiguous claims when they are “consumed in a group setting” and when that information “aligns with their own party affiliation.”

According to the article, Johar, Jun, and Meng conducted eight experiments to evaluate how the presence of others affects the way that people evaluate information and the extent to which people verify ambiguous claims.” The study found that “perceiving the company of others seemed to influence people’s willingness to verify information, not how much they believed it.” Their research posited three potential reasons why “collective settings may suppress fact checking.”

  • Individuals may exert less effort (and hence be less likely to fact-check claims) because they expect to ‘free ride’ on others.
  • People may abide by social norms that lead them to take the words of others at face value.
  • Crowds may inherently cause people to feel ‘safety in numbers,’ which decreases vigilance in general.

Johar concludes, “Animals in the wild hide out and feel safer in herds and, similarly, we feel safer in a crowd. When applied to information consumed on social media, this same instinct results in lower fact-checking.”

You can read more about the trio’s research on fake news stories on the official Columbia Business School website.

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About the Author


Jonathan Pfeffer

Jonathan Pfeffer joined the Clear Admit and MetroMBA teams in 2015 after spending several years as an arts/culture writer, editor, and radio producer. In addition to his role as contributing writer at MetroMBA and contributing editor at Clear Admit, he is co-founder and lead producer of the Clear Admit MBA Admissions Podcast. He holds a BA in Film/Video, Ethnomusicology, and Media Studies from Oberlin College.

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