People have access to more news from more sources than ever before. At the same time, they increasingly distrust traditional media and are exposed to more misinformation. To help people better distinguish real news from “fake news,” we must first understand how they
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People have access to more news from more sources than ever before. At the same time, they increasingly distrust traditional media and are exposed to more misinformation. To help people better distinguish real news from “fake news,” we must first understand how they judge whether news is real or fake. One possibility is that people adopt a relatively effortful, analytic approach, judging news based on its content. However, another possibility—consistent with psychological research—is that people adopt a relatively effortless, heuristic approach, drawing on cues outside of news content. One such cue is where the news comes from: its source. Beliefs about news sources depend on people’s political affiliation, with U.S. liberals tending to trust sources that conservatives distrust, and vice versa. Therefore, if people take this heuristic approach, then judgments of news from different sources should depend on political affiliation and lead to a confirmation bias of pre-existing beliefs. Similarly, political affiliation could affect the likelihood that people mistake real news for fake news. We tested these ideas in two sets of experiments. In the first set, we asked University of Louisiana at Lafayette undergraduates (Experiment 1a n
= 376) and Mechanical Turk workers in the United States (Experiment 1a n
= 205; Experiment 1b n
= 201) to rate how “real” versus “fake” a series of unfamiliar news headlines were. We attributed each headline to one of several news sources of varying political slant. As predicted, we found that source information influenced people’s ratings in line with their own political affiliation, although this influence was relatively weak. In the second set, we asked Mechanical Turk workers in the United States (Experiment 2a n
= 300; Experiment 2b n
= 303) and University of Louisiana at Lafayette undergraduates (Experiment 2b n
= 182) to watch a highly publicized “fake news” video involving doctored footage of a journalist. We found that people’s political affiliation influenced their beliefs about the event, but the doctored footage itself had only a trivial influence. Taken together, these results suggest that adults across a range of ages rely on information other than news content—such as how they feel about its source—when judging whether news is real or fake. Moreover, our findings help explain how people experiencing the same news content can arrive at vastly different conclusions. Finally, efforts aimed at educating the public in combatting fake news need to consider how political affiliation affects the psychological processes involved in forming beliefs about the news.