Psychologists uncover ‘startling’ findings after examining Hungary’s susceptibility to fake news

People with higher cognitive reflective skills tend to be better at distinguishing disinformation from real information, according to new research. However, in Hungary, anti-government voters used their thinking skills to challenge false information that both agreed and disagreed with their political views, while pro-government voters were far less likely to question fake news . The new findings appear in Scientific Reports.

The spread of fake news can have harmful consequences for individuals and society. It can spread misinformation, create confusion and division, and even affect people’s behavior and decisions.

“Our interest in this topic stems from a contradiction: Hungary has been invaded by Russia/Soviet Union several times throughout its history, and the last occupation took place between 1944 and 1991, so many Hungarian adults have personal experience of the profession,” the study author explained Laura Faragó, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Eötvös Loránd University.

“Nevertheless, due to the systematic disinformation campaigns in the mainstream media, many Hungarians have a pro-Russian bias and even blame the Russian-initiated war on the Ukrainians, which is irrational given their own personal historical experiences. Therefore, we thought that examining the vulnerability to disinformation in this country was of paramount importance.”

The researchers attempted to replicate a US study on the psychological predictors of vulnerability to fake news. They used a Hungarian polling firm to recruit a sample of 991 participants who completed assessments on fake news discrimination, cognitive reflective ability, and digital media literacy. They also filled out questionnaires about their demographic information.

To assess perceptions of fake news, researchers presented participants with 15 fake and 15 real headlines in the format of a Facebook post. Respondents were asked if they had seen the story before, how accurate they thought the claim was, and if they would consider sharing it online. The headlines came from fact-checking sites and mainstream news sources and contained a mix of politically charged (pro-government) and politically neutral content.

Those who performed better on the cognitive reflective ability test were more likely to spot fake information. The test contained questions that tend to generate quick and intuitive—but incorrect—answers. In other words, those who do well on the test tend to reflect and overthink the problem rather than “going with their gut.”

In addition, greater digital media literacy was positively associated with distinguishing between real and fake news. Participants were credited with greater digital media literacy when they disagreed with statements such as “I have trouble finding things I have stored on my computer” and “I rely on family members to introduce me to new technologies”.

“Our study found that analytical thinking and digital literacy lead to better detection of disinformation,” Faragó told PsyPost. “Nonetheless, analytical thinking interacted with partisanship: the impact of analytical thinking on perceptions of fake news was more significant for opposition voters than for government supporters. However, the visibility of news sources (mainstream media vs. fake news sites) did not impact individuals’ ability to spot fake news, which was contrary to our expectations.”

When it came to politically neutral headlines, cognitive reflection was a stronger predictor of perceptions of fake news than partisanship. But when it came to politically charged headlines, partisanship was a stronger predictor of fake news perception than cognitive reflection. The researchers also found that participants were better able to distinguish real news from fake news when the news content was consistent with their political leanings.

Examining the interaction between partisanship and cognitive reflection, Faragó and her colleagues found that those who opposed Hungary’s conservative government were more likely to use their analytical skills to question fake news, while pro-government participants had difficulty distinguishing real news from fake news distinguish messages.

“Our study is a replica of an American study (the original study was conducted by Pennycook and Rand in 2019),” Faragó said. “Pennycook and Rand compared supporters of Clinton and Trump in terms of media perceptions of the truth.”

According to their study, although Clinton supporters were significantly better at detecting misinformation than Trump supporters, Trump supporters also generally found real news to be more credible than fake news (media truth judgment scores were positive for all types of misinformation). Despite this, in Hungary, the average pro-government truth judgment scores were negative, meaning they consider fake news to be more accurate than real news. That’s scary.”

Fake news is a rapidly evolving phenomenon, and studying it can help researchers understand how technology is changing the way we consume and share information, and how this can affect our perception of reality and our decision-making processes.

“The real question we are trying to answer in further research is how much, and how much, can we attribute this asymmetry in the acceptance of fake news between government supporters and the opposition to overexposure to disinformation in the public sphere the ideological makeup of voters (e.g. liberal vs. conservative),” Faragó said. “Future studies are needed to answer this question.”

The study “Hungarian, Lazy and Biased: The Role of Analytical Thinking and Partisanship in Fake News Detection Using a Hungarian Representative Sample” was authored by Laura Faragó, Péter Krekó and Gábor Orosz.

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