A new study in the journal Scientific Reports explores the impact of social media fatigue, cognitive ability, and the presence of narcissistic traits on the likelihood of sharing misinformation.
Study: Examining the association between social media fatigue, cognitive ability, narcissism and misinformation sharing: cross-national evidence from eight countries. Image Credit: r.classen / Shutterstock.com
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) brought illness, death, economic disruption, and social divisions worldwide. As a result of public health restrictions on travel, social media use became increasingly prevalent, as many people utilized these platforms for their sources of news, society, stress relief, and work-related needs.
Among the unforeseen consequences of this increased social media reliance was a wave of misinformation spreading globally through social media platforms. This spread of misinformation has been described as a modern “infodemic” that profoundly and permanently affects the attitudes of people throughout the world.
However, misinformation does not affect all social media users alike. For example, people who believe COVID-19 misinformation are often the same who believe political misinformation, most of whom are older and less educated individuals with less cognitive performance.
Social media use has led to significant amounts of information becoming available on such platforms, thereby causing information overload and social media fatigue (SMF). SMF, which refers to the urge to stop or reduce social media use due to the overload, may lead to engagement with misinformation.
If people are too exhausted by information overload, they can be predisposed to believe information shared in a clear way on social media without analyzing its truthfulness. Moreover, social media algorithms present users with more of what they search for, thus reinforcing their belief in the honesty of the information.
This phenomenon can increase trust in false beliefs through the illusory truth effect, which maintains that repeated information is seen as more truthful.”
Cognitive thinking has been linked both positively and negatively to engagement with misinformation. However, this could interact with personality traits to modify the level and type of engagement with misinformation. There is a paucity of research that considers both these factors in combination.
The current study also determined whether and how narcissism affects misinformation belief, and sharing. Finally, the researchers sought to look at Asian countries also for their evidence base, rather than just the West, considering its over 2.1 billion internet users.
The researchers used surveys and quota sampling methods. Over 8,000 responses from the United States, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam were obtained.
What did the study show?
Singaporeans had less reliance on COVID-19 misinformation than other countries, whereas the U.S. and China had the highest rates of perceived accuracy.
People in the Philippines were the most likely to believe and share accurate news. This may be attributed to the aggressive stance of the Philippine government on misinformation, as it has implemented fact-checking and public educational campaigns that ensure the safety of online platforms for obtaining reliable information.
Except in Vietnam, younger people in most countries were more likely to believe and share misinformation, especially if they were politically engaged. People who learned their news from social media rather than television were also more likely to believe and share misinformation in the U.S., Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Individuals with high cognitive ability were inversely associated with belief and sharing of misinformation. Those with SMF exhibited higher rates of belief in COVID-19 misinformation but only a weak association with sharing it.
Increased belief in the accuracy of misinformation was linked to increased sharing. There is a direct association between SMF and belief in false COVID-19 information, but the indirect though consistent association between SMF and sharing suggests that SMF causes people to share COVID-19 misinformation.
In all countries except Vietnam, narcissism was associated with higher rates of engagement with belief in and sharing of misinformation. The indirect effects on personal belief in and sharing of COVID-19 misinformation weakened with both increased cognitive ability and low narcissism traits.
What are the implications?
This cross-cultural and cross-national study demonstrated that SMF is a driver for the belief and propagation of COVID-19 misinformation. Several reasons contribute to this phenomenon, including brain fatigue from the weight of information being passed around today. This could impair the ability to think and reason about information, thus encouraging its acceptance without questioning its logic.
Search engines and social media algorithms function to promote content with an instant appeal, which may be due to controversy or emotional content. This type of content will be repeatedly offered to the consumer, thereby triggering the illusory truth effect.
Thus, SMF promotes inaccurate beliefs, especially if the individual already has a pre-existing bias toward the argument. However, this association is not universal, as an individual’s cognitive ability and narcissistic traits mediate the risk.
Unexpectedly, we find that even among high-cognitive-ability groups, individuals with higher narcissistic tendencies are more likely to perceive the misinformation as accurate and share it on social media when they are fatigued.”
Despite this finding, the highest indirect associations are seen in individuals with high narcissism and low cognitive ability. These types of people frequently share misinformation online, which could be their attempt to feel important by sharing news that confirms their own biases. This may also allow these individuals to obtain more attention socially despite their lack of analytical thinking, especially since their sharing consists of more controversial and attention-grabbing opinions and news.
Narcissism also promotes the demand for immediate gratification. When fatigued, as with SMF, narcissists with low cognitive ability tend to impulsively share misinformation without fact-checking.
Considering the long-term adverse effects of social media, especially as a source and amplifier of misinformation on mental health, social behavior, and political divisions, legal and corporate guidelines are urgently needed. These regulations must be aimed at reducing SMF, limiting the spread of misinformation, and raising awareness about online information.
Strategies focused on these outcomes should be designed to reach various populations, including people with low cognitive ability and narcissistic traits, as they are more vulnerable to being deceived into believing COVID-19 misinformation when fatigued than others.
Any scholarly attempts at understanding public engagement with misinformation must focus on individuals’ personalities and cognitive traits.”
- Ahmed, S. & Rasul, M. E. (2023). Examining the association between social media fatigue, cognitive ability, narcissism and misinformation sharing: cross-national evidence from eight countries. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/s41598-023-42614-z.