Out of fright, out of mind. How fear could have led to the persistence of ‘fake news’ surrounding COVID-19

‘Fake News’
“false or misleading content presented as news and communicated in formats spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic, and digital communication.” Media scholar Nolan Higdon

Misinformation or ‘fake news’ has been rife in recent years. Have you ever wondered why people persist in believing something false? Even when we are shown verified sources contradicting what we believe, often it is hard to let a belief go. A recent study, published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications by Newman and colleagues (1), has shed light on what happens when someone is presented with new information ‘debunking’ what they were previously shown, but under conditions of fear. Demonstrating that fear interferes with your ability to take in new information that contradicts what you already believe. In these difficult and often scary times understanding how people will respond when scared is vital for the relaying of public safety information. How can governments combat ‘fake news’ in such a scary time?

How fear is related to fake news surrounding Covid-19

The Study

This study aimed to investigate the relationship between anxiety/stress/fear and the ability to update mental representations of people. 98 female participants (mean age 20.1) were shown a screen showing a female face alongside a trait (positive, negative or neutral).

Then the screen would indicate whether this information was true or false followed by a symbol showing whether or not the participant may receive an electric shock (yes really). The participants received a short (500ms) electric shock to their forearm. Following this stage, the researchers began testing the participants memory. Specifically their memory of the faces and which traits were true or false. This was compared with the possibility of an electric shock versus no electric shock.


Results

Results show fear impacts ability to take in new information which tells you that old information is false

The results are very interesting. From the shown graph, there is a clear difference between the participants ability to correctly answer the trials when they are ‘safe’ versus under ‘threat’. When under threat there is a decreased ability to correctly answer the trials where the participants where shown a trait was false. This indicates that the fear of the shock may have impaired the participants’ ability to take in the new information.

The study gave even more insight. Participants could also select ‘never seen’ to indicate they believed they had never been shown that particular trait and face. This meant researchers could assess the rates of ‘never seen’ errors. When under threat there was a significant increase in ‘never seen’ errors when participants had been shown information that was then indicated to be false.

For example, if a participant was shown a face and told that person is polite. Then told that information was false. If they were then warned they might receive an electric shock later when they were tested they were more likely to either (i) incorrectly say that person was polite and forget they had been shown that was false or (ii) they were also more likely to say they had never seen that face and trait before.

These results indicate that when under threat you are less able to take in new information. Specifically when that information indicates previous information is false. You are also be less likely to remember even seeing the new information.

Limitations

There are some limitations to the study, which the authors discuss. Recruiting only females avoided potential sex-specific differences in visual memory for male and female faces. However, having only females also creates a limitation. It remains to be addressed how this study translates to a male population.

Additionally, the ‘threat’ in this study is short lived. This means the anxiety induced is different to that of a chronic threat, such as Covid-19. When thinking about ‘fake news’ and the effect of fear on people’s ability to take in new information we need to be aware that the fear is chronic not acute. For example, an anti-vaxxers’ fear surrounding vaccination is very different to the imminent threat of a shock.

More research is needed to understand chronic fear/anxiety and how it affects people’s ability to take in new information, especially when this new information contradicts their beliefs. It also goes without saying that this is just one mechanism that false information can persist. Obviously there are others which have been widely studied, such as confirmation bias. Despite the limitations, this study feels very relevant when talking about anxiety inducing situations such as the current pandemic.

The Implications

It feels like every time you turn on the news you are presented with new information surrounding COVID-19. What the science says NOW. What the regulations are NOW. What are the NEW vaccines and what are the LATEST results from their trials.

This pandemic has been incredibly anxiety provoking. Ironically, this study suggests that in these anxious times our brains may become less able to correct false information. That may mean, when you read a headline about Astra-Zeneca causing deadly blood clots and this frightens you. You may be less able to take in the new information that you see later telling you the risk is incredibly small and you are safe to take the vaccine. You may reject it when offered to you. Maybe you even reject all other vaccines too, due to the fear caused by that news. That is obviously an extreme example. The point is this could have real world implications with how news is presented.

This may tell us is it is more important than ever for information to be released slowly. Ensuring it is accurate and informative. Rather than rushing to release information and later releasing more information to clarify or correct mistakes. Slow but accurate may win the information race. We can’t rely on being able to correct mistakes later. I think this needs to be applied to the pandemic. How much conflicting information have we seen from governments. Masks are unnecessary unless you work in healthcare, then masks are crucial for public safety. Stay indoors to protect your community, then go out and spend money to save the economy. Flip flop after flip flop. Clear, accurate messaging is key if you want people to listen and make changes.

What do you think about how this article relates to the pandemic? Comment below or on social media.

Author

  • Dr Craig Davison has a PhD in Medicine from Queens University Belfast (QUB). Craig has published research investigating novel treatment strategies targeting nucleotide metabolism. Craig is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow and is passionate about science communication.

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