Spreading fake news is generally acknowledged as being disruptive and potentially harmful. So much so that our nation’s president has on several occasions cautioned the public against sharing false information, with particular reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what drives people to create and circulate fake news?
Kiara Sunder, a clinical psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Umhlanga, highlights that many individuals are naively unaware that they are sharing misinformation. “There are also those who do it knowingly as a means of satisfying underlying social needs or political agendas. These motives are multi-layered and can be quite complex to unpack,” she says. “However, there is a common factor that leads to fake news doing harm and that is a strong societal trust in online sources.”
Sunder points out that historically, news was received in print or broadcast format via official news channels, which the public trusted as having been researched and verified. Yet now, in a relatively short space of time, obtaining news online on social media platforms and communication apps from various, often unofficial, sources including from individuals has become the norm for many people.
“The internet has given a voice to anyone and everyone. While this has its benefits, it also means that a great deal of information is shared unchecked. Digital illiteracy is of growing concern, and is particularly prevalent amongst older generations. Younger people who have grown up with technology have high levels of digital literacy built into their schema, or cognitive framework for organising information. This gives them a certain level of built-in understanding about what is and is not ‘real’ online. Conversely, older individuals who have had to learn technology later in life tend to be more trusting.
“There are many internet users who mistakenly believe that anything published online must be true. The same goes for information received in a text message or voice note via a trusted contact,” she says.
The spectrum of motives behind fake news
Sunder notes that there is a broad spectrum of what drives people to create and share misinformation: “Some of these factors are less obvious and while it is multi-layered, there are some clear psychological motivations that can be observed.”
Social status seeking
Sunder says while these users may not be aware of the motives behind their behaviour, they are in fact seeking status and self-promotion, indicating that some emotional needs are not being met in real life. This could include the need to be relevant or to be first to share information, to be seen as a ‘protector’ of one’s online community.
There are people suffering from anxiety and mental health conditions who use social media as an escape or as a channel for processing their own feelings, explains Sunder.
Needing to feel validated is also a motivating factor amongst those who spread fake news on a more regular basis, according to Sunder, particularly those who buy into alternative views, or conspiracy theories.
Persons who create and knowingly spread fake news intentionally will often have a political or psychological agenda, which they are trying to advance or serve. Sunder says these individuals may have the intent to do harm or are so single minded in their pursuit that they have no regard for any damage they may cause.
According to Sunder, criminals targeting vulnerable individuals are known to use fake news as a tool to spread the word about sought after opportunities, for example through fictitious job or training advertisements and other similar scams, whereby unsuspecting individuals are asked to pay some kind of administrative or activation fee with the promise of earnings or other financial rewards in return.