Past event

School of Psychology and Neuroscience Seminar: Dr Alexander Stewart Attention, learning and the production of misinformation

This in-person and online seminar, with Dr Alexander Stewart, University of St Andrews (Mathematics and Statistics) will present a seminar on ‘Attention, learning and the production of misinformation' hosted by Ken Mavor.

The spread of misinformation and “fake news” continues to be a major focus of public concern. A great deal of research has examined who falls for misinformation and why, and what can be done to make people more discerning consumers of news. Comparatively little work, however, has considered the choices of those who produce misinformation, and how these choices interact with the psychology of news consumers. Here we use game-theoretic models to study the strategic interaction between news publishers and news readers. We show that publishers who seek to spread misinformation can generate high engagement with falsehoods by using strategies that mix true and false stories over time, in such a way that they serve more false stories to more loyal readers. These coercive strategies cause false stories to receive higher reader engagement than true stories — even when readers strictly prefer truth over falsehood. In contrast, publishers who seek to promote engagement with accurate information will use strategies that generate more engagement with true stories than with false stories. We confirm these predictions empirically by examining 1,000 headlines from 20 mainstream and 20 fake news sites, comparing Facebook engagement data with 20,000 perceived accuracy ratings collected in a survey experiment. We show that engagement is positively correlated with accuracy among mainstream sites, but negatively correlated with accuracy among misinformation sites. We then use our model to analyze the conditions under which news sites seeking engagement will produce false stories. We show that if a publisher incorrectly assumes that readers prefer falsehoods, their resulting publication strategy can nonetheless manufacture greater engagement with false news — leading to a self-reinforcing cycle of false news promotion. Removing misinformation from the information ecosystem may require fixing incorrect assumptions made by news outlets about the preferences of their readers, as well as bad news consumption habits among the readers themselves.

For those who can't make it in person, this talk will be delivered through Teams, as well. See you there, in person or virtually!