Unconscious effects of disinformation

Social networks are helpful tools to communicate with each other. Indeed, they allow humans to interact with each other, keep in touch with distant relationships, connect with groups of similar interests, stay up to date with news, and much more. However, it should not be denied that these social networks also contain perverse effects, for example, the spread of fake news. Indeed, fake news or false information are often transmitted through social networks because of their capability to reach many people in record time. Fake news is often the visible and tangible form of disinformation, which consists of diffusing incorrect information. Fake news can be broadcast for multiple motivations.

The literature shows the growing tendency to use fake news for political motives, such as dissuading citizens from voting for a political party. It then becomes worrying for democratic systems to observe external and malicious actors wanting to influence citizens’ actions. For example, Mueller’s report (2019) claimed that Facebook and Twitter were attacked by cybercriminals using their platforms to disseminate mass disinformation by using false accounts to interfere with the US elections. Also, false information can dissuade or encourage citizens to commit certain acts such as inciting violence in the world by disseminating provocative remarks of a political, cultural, or religious nature.

The emergence of fake news and the growing literature on the subject led researcher Bastick (2021) to investigate the extent to which malicious actors can use social media to affect and thus subconsciously influence human behaviour with disinformation.

As such, a laboratory experiment was carried out with 233 participants. The participants were undergraduate students at a political science school in France. The population was composed mainly of women (71%) and with an average age of 18.45. They were all randomly separated into three groups, two participating groups and a control group. Participants were exposed to various tests to measure their behaviours before and after exposure to fake news.

The study results show that exposure, as brief as less than 5 minutes, to fake news can subconsciously alter people’s behaviour. Briefly, this study shows that fake news can influence and manipulate human behaviour. A marked difference can be observed between the participating groups and the control group not exposed to fake news.

However, studying the impact of fake news on behaviour becomes much more complicated than in a laboratory. Indeed, in real life, several other factors can be considered, such as repeated exposure to disinformation, exposure to different sources of disinformation, and peers’ influence.

Regarding the study’s limits, it is crucial to consider the participants’ homogeneity, all coming from the same university program and being all in the same age group; the study’s results cannot be generalized to the general population.

In conclusion, the article helps illustrate the impact that false information and disinformation, in general, can have on human behaviour. The results are alarming both for national and international government and political agencies favouring a democratic society.  Governments and political agencies must then work together to prevent or at least limit fake news spread.

To cite: Bastick, Z. (2021). Would you notice if fake news changed your behavior? An experiment on the unconscious effects of disinformation. Computers in Human Behavior, 116.