The current chapter aims to map and present the various factors that may explain the last years' exponential spread of disinformation and misinformation.

By looking at psychological and social variables, it aims to briefly introduce and analyse the main reasons why people fall for misinformation, disinformation or other forms of altered information. By looking at recent examples from Romania, Spain and Malta, the chapter discusses the emergence of influencers and their impact in spreading disinformation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It concludes by reiterating the need for a holistic approach (integrating people’s cognitive styles, predispositions, emotions, perceptions, group affiliation etc.) in analysing the propensity towards disinformation and misinformation. 

Digital competences addressed

1.2 Evaluating data, information and digital content
1.3 Managing data, information and digital content
2.2 Sharing through digital technologies
2.5 Netiquette
4.2 Protecting personal data and privacy 

2.1 Individual and group factors

Valentin Stoian-Iordache, Irena Chiru


The current section aims to explain why people fall for altered types of information, with a special focus on disinformation. By looking at recent studies developed on the topic, it analyses the propensity to disinformation in correlation to people’s cognitive styles, predispositions, and emotions. 

Main research questions addressed

● Which are the main predictors of individuals’ belief in misinformation?
● What factors have been found to predict individuals’ capacity to discern between fake and real news?
● Which are the factors associated with willingness to disseminate misinformation online?

Recent research on the diffusion of information online consistently finds that misinformation diffuses faster and reaches broader audiences than correct information (Vosoughi et al., 2018). Furthermore, individuals who encounter false information on social media actively spread it further, by sharing or otherwise engaging with it (Buchanan, 2020). Hence, much of the spread of disinformation can thus be attributed to human action/ inaction. Academic works on the factors that determine belief in and willingness to share disinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news have identified several potential determinants.

These could be summarized as:

Information deficit and education hypothesis 

variables Education. Information
explanation  -  Less informed or skilled people are more are more susceptible to disinformation. Digital literacy is a useful predictor of people’s ability to tell truth from falsehood

Psychological hypothesis
variables - Personality traits. Low trust in people. Collective narcissism. Machiavelism
explanation - People high on these personality traits are more willing to believe conspiracy theories.

Political hypothesis 
variables - Political views. Political extremism (intensity of political views). Extreme right
explanation - People tend to believe fake news that agrees with their political views. The relationship is especially high when these views are very strongly held. Generally, people on the (traditionally defined) extreme right are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

Cognitive hypothesis 
variables - Absence of critical reading. Fast consumption of titles and pictures. Tendency to make quick judgments
explanation - People use heuristics because it’s easier than conducting complex analysis, especially on the internet where there’s a lot of information. But the problem with heuristics is that they often lead to incorrect conclusions. Also, people usually accept information only if it agrees with what they already know and do not take time to read material are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Other examples: motivated reasoning - people are motivated to believe what they want to believe and what dovetails with their worldviews and prior knowledge or confirmation bias - people seek and interpret information that aligns with their existing identities, expectations, and attitudes.

In/out-group/evolutionary hypothesis/social identity hypothesis 
variables - Inter-group competition. Content of conspiracy theories. Level of inter-group conflict
explanation - Conspiracy theories are more likely to be believed in a situation of intense inter-group conflict if they contain negative views of the enemy group.

Several types of variables have been examined in recently published studies on the topic of disinformation trying to see if psychological predispositions (e.g., social dominance orientation, right-wing authoritarianism, system justification beliefs, openness, need for closure, conspiracy mentality), competencies (scientific and political knowledge, interest in politics) or motivated reasoning based on social identity (political orientation) could help explain who believes fake news. People that show low analytic abilities, people with less relevant knowledge and people who score low on the personality factors conscientiousness and open-mindedness are most susceptible to fake news. These people may lack the critical thinking or knowledge necessary to discern between real and fake headlines. For example, people with a pronounced need for cognitive closure have been described as striving to eliminate uncertainty (Webster and Kruglanski, 1997), form judgments swiftly on a given issue (Kruglanski et al., 1991) and show less information-seeking behavior (e.g. Klein and Webster, 2000) the dark triad of personality - narcissism, machiavellism and psychopathy have also been indicated as personality traits that might make a particular person more liable to spread misinformation; these also correlate for example with low trust in others, which leads to lack of openness to alternative ways of reading information or with power orientation gained through spreading political fake posts in the online. Environment. Moreover, analytic thinking is associated with lower receptivity to pseudo‐profound bullshit (Pennycook et al., 2015) and fake news (Pennycook & Rand, 2018).

In addition to psychological traits, other variables have also been taken into account. Social variables relate to one's location in the complex web of contemporary society and, particularly, one's distance from those making decisions on societal issues. Political variables refer to a person's political conceptions and to the strength with which these are held. Cognitive variables address the person's willingness to use heuristics and mental shortcuts in order to assess the reliability of information they read. Thus, a "conspiracy mentality" has been identified as psychological predisposition that consistently explained belief in all types of fake news (Szebeni et al. 2021).
Through a meta-analysis of 14 other studies in the literature and secondary analysis of the data they collected, Pennycook and Rand (2020, 2021) identify several hypotheses on why people are willing to share and believe fake news. According to the authors, the political motivation conception predicts that people will more likely accept low-credibility news, if these conform to their political beliefs. Alternatively, the reasoning/heuristics approach refers to the idea that, when making decisions, people use intuition over deliberative reasoning. Pennycook and Rand (2020, 2021) find that several studies in the literature support the heuristics hypothesis, of cognitive laziness over that of political partisanship. Mancosu and Vegetti (2020) also find that conspiracy mentality is highly relevant for belief in fake news and disinformation. Further, among those who share this conspiracy mentality, many are willing to believe conspiracy-endorsing news if it comes from an alternative-style outlet over a mainstream-type outlet.

Ackland and Gwynn (2021) also conducted a wide analysis of the academic works discussing the issue of fake news. They also identify the reasoning/heuristics hypothesis which relates to whether people are willing to stop and evaluate the truthfulness of a piece of news and the social identity theory, which refers to the fact that people desire to be seen as being members of a particular group and are willing to share news which reinforce this identity.

Another approach is developed by Prooijen and van Vugt (2018). They ground their approach in evolutionary psychology and argue that the willingness to believe fake news refers to mechanisms which might have been useful in hunter-gatherer societies in which inter-group aggression was high and the losses from such conflict were significant. Two possible options are discussed by the authors: belief in conspiracy theories is a by-product of evolution or an adaptive mechanism, developed in order to identify intentions of out-group aggression. According to the authors, for hunter gatherers, identifying hostile intentions avoids significant losses, while incorrectly doing so only involves minor reputational losses.

Umbres and Stoica (2022) conducted a study on a Romanian sample, in order to investigate factors supporting or diminishing belief in COVID-19 related conspiracy theories. Unlike in other studies, more educated Romanians and those who defined themselves as extreme right, were less willing to believe conspiracy theories. However, similarly to the findings in the rest of the literature, people with a high degree of collective narcissism were more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Another group of researchers that also worked on Romania were Buturoiu et al (2021). They found that more religious people were more willing to believe in fake news but that more educated people were less willing to do so.

A study with similar results to that of Mancosu and Vegetti (2020) was carried out by Halpern et al. (2019) in Chile. They also found that social media use does not, per se, affect the propensity to believe in fake news. However, among believers in fake news, there is a strong effect of social media use, conspiracy mentality and confidence in what contacts share on the willingness to further distribute fake news. Political identification also has a strong effect: more people on the right of the political spectrum are more willing to believe and share news that they believe are fake.

Two studies on the predictors of belief in conspiracy theories were carried out in Serbia by Petrovic and Zezelj (2021, 2022). The authors identified consistent support for the existence of a conspiracy mentality. According to their work, belief in conspiracy theories remains even when they are mutually contradictory. The most important predictor identified was a tendency to accept conspiracy-like content coupled with a tendency to believe mutually contradictory statements. Another finding was that those who believe contradictory claims still consider themselves highly when rating their own intellectual consistency (see also section 1.3). The second article found that people who prefer experiential rather than rational thinking and are likely to believe pseudo-profound statements are prone to believe disinformation.

Socio-affective factors have been investigated too, such as the perceived source credibility, trustworthiness and expertise of the sources providing the misinformation and correction. Furthermore, people tend to trust sources that are perceived to share their own values and worldviews (Briñol, 2009). The worldview can be defined as a person’s values and belief system that grounds their personal and sociocultural identity. Should information be perceived as a threat against group identity, this can lead to intense negative emotions that motivate strategies such as discrediting the source of the correction, ignoring the worldview-inconsistent evidence or selectively focusing on worldview-bolstering evidence (Lewandowsky, 2016).

In conclusion, the propensity for a lack of critical thinking and an absence of the habit of verifying information was seen as the most significant factor for rating fake news as believable. Conversely, those who think rationally and verify information are less susceptible to believing fake news. Some relevance was found for personality traits such as narcissism and social factors such as marginal socio-economic status, as well as belief in religion and political views. Hence, the drivers of false beliefs are multifold and go beyond a simple information deficit model and include cognitive factors, such as use of intuitive thinking and memory failures, social factors, such as reliance on source cues to determine truth, and affective factors, such as the influence of mood on credulity.  

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Co-funded by European Commission Erasmus+
University of Malta
University Rey Juan Carlos
Logo New Strategy Center

Project: DOMINOES Digital cOMpetences INformatiOn EcoSystem  ID: 2021-1-RO01-KA220-HED-000031158
The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ivan, Cristina; Chiru, Irena; Buluc, Ruxandra; Radu, Aitana; Anghel, Alexandra; Stoian-Iordache, Valentin; Arcos, Rubén; Arribas, Cristina M.; Ćuća, Ana; Ganatra, Kanchi; Gertrudix, Manuel; Modh, Ketan; Nastasiu, Cătălina. (2023). HANDBOOK on Identifying and Countering Disinformation. DOMINOES Project https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7893952