A ‘need for chaos’ fuels some fake news culprits, study says

A Temple professor won an award in the American Political Science Association.

Disenfranchised people may share fake news — not because they believe it — but because they want to create disorder, according to a study, co-authored by a Temple professor, which examines why people deliberately share fake news on social media.

“‘A Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies,” won the American Political Science Association’s top award in Political Psychology last month. 

Fake news is “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intend,” according to an article in Science. In recent years, perceptions of bias and fake news have caused Americans’ trust in media to fall from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2017, according to Gallop.

Kevin Arceneaux, the director of Temple’s Behavioral Foundations lab, set out, along with his colleagues, to understand how fake news spreads across social media, he said. They concluded, based on national polls, that many people don’t share fake news out of ignorance or partisanship, but because they see spreading rumors as a strategy for furthering chaos.

“I remember it like yesterday, sitting around a table, saying ‘Some people want a need for chaos,’ kind of laughing, then I wondered if that wasn’t crazy,” Arceneaux said. “When evidence came back supporting that supposition, I was surprised. It just came to us in a flash of insight.”

 “People who tend to see themselves as lower on the social hierarchy who see chaos as a way to gain power are more likely to spread rumors, not because they believe them but because they want to upset the apple cart,” he added.

Abbe Depretis, a professor of communication and social influence, said fake news is not a new phenomenon, but part of a long history of people using outrageous stunts to gain attention.

“You kind of get the answer in the word ‘chaos,’” Depretis said. “In a time of chaos people feel powerless, so sometimes people invert this to create power for themselves. If they’re a part of creating this chaos, it gives them some grounding in the chaos.”

Arceneaux’s data argues that people who spread fake news feel disadvantaged in society. 

“They are often construed as bored people who have nothing to do, sometimes they can’t articulate their demands, but there’s politics behind it,” Depretis said. “People act like it’s greed or consumerism, but it’s not. People say they are burning down their own city. They’re not.”

“They’re burning down places that have treated residents poorly, they destroy or take from places that have taken from them,” she added.

“I don’t think you can say that their behavior is irrational,” Arceneaux said. “They think spreading rumors will cause the current established system to be ripped and burned to the ground. From their perspective, it’s sensible, even though the effects are horrific.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the percentage of Americans’ trust in media in a 2017 Gallop poll. It is 32 percent.

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