Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:
Altay, S. Hacquin, A-S. Mercier, H. (2020). “Why do so few people share fake news ? It hurts their reputation”. News media & society
This article, which regroups four experimental studies, shows that individuals generally avoid voluntarily sharing fake news for fear that it will affect their reputation.
According to the authors of the article, recent research shows that, contrary to what one might think, the proportion of fake news in circulation on the Internet is relatively low. While fake news are attractive because of their content, they are nonetheless damaging to the reputation of the media that produce them and the people who share them: doing so leads to losing the trust of others and to being perceived as incompetent. Basing themselves on the assumption that trust is more easily lost than gained, Altay, Hacquin and Mercier therefore hypothesize that individuals and the media are wary of voluntarily broadcasting fake news in order to preserve their reputation.
The first study conducted by the authors of this article shows that media that share fake news do indeed see their reputation deteriorate sharply. Moreover, their reputation remains poor even if they subsequently share correct information. Therefore, if a media outlet can see its reputation rapidly decline, it is more difficult to regain.
The second study shows that when a media outlet shares fake news, its reputation deteriorates in the eyes of participants even if the fake news in question is in line with their political values. In other words, a media's reputation depends more on the reliability of the published information than on its ideological orientation.
The last two studies show that individuals themselves are reluctant to voluntarily share fake news. Altay and his colleagues established this by asking participants to indicate the amount of money for which they would be willing to share a given piece of information on social networks. Some of the information provided by the researchers was obviously false. As a result, participants requested a significantly higher amount of money to share false information than to share truthful information. Interestingly, participants were less reluctant to share fake news if they could do so anonymously. Only a minority of participants (less than 30%) were willing to share fake news for free on their personal accounts. The extent to which individuals are concerned with their reputation therefore seems to serve as a safeguard in the dissemination of fake news.
These results are in line with previous studies stating that a minority of the population is responsible for the diffusion of the majority of fake news on social networks. This minority is thought to share fake news for various reasons. They may not realize that the information is false, or they may believe that the nature of the fake news will not be too damaging to their reputation.