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The people behind fake posts can rely on a few tricks to get you on board. But there are ways to spot them, and ways to avoid falling for what they have to say.

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It seems like social media companies are always cracking down on fake accounts -- ones who aren’t who they say they are, and are committed to spreading disinformation. Like in the US, where such fake accounts have been accused of trying to influence the 2016 election.

It’s not clear what effect they had, but at least some people believed the fake posts were real enough to interact with and share them -- whether they’re run by robots or real people. So why do people fall for fake stories on social media? The people behind fake posts can rely on a few tricks to get you on board.

But there are ways to spot them, and ways to avoid falling for what they have to say -- including taking a second to think before you share. Not all of us interact with fake accounts and share their posts. Only about one in a thousand Twitter users are responsible for 80% of shares of fake stories.

And they were usually people who already had pretty extreme beliefs -- as did their friend groups. So how do fake accounts get us -- at least some of us -- to click on and share their posts? Well, they can be pretty savvy -- and studies have revealed some of their most effective tricks.

One is to keep it simple. The truth is often complicated, but if you don't need to worry about sticking to the truth, you can come up with a much “clearer” explanation. For example, fake Twitter accounts just love to spread myths about vaccines.

And the myth about vaccines and autism does make a simple story: get a shot, get symptoms. We know that’s not true, but that simple lie still has legs. So when a measles outbreak began in 2014, this was an opportunity to test what kinds of news headlines got shared.

In a 2016 paper, researchers looked at over 1600 vaccine-related stories that were shared on Facebook during that time. And they found that having a simple bottom-line meaning was the easiest way to get your article shared. The credibility of the source -- like whether it included data from a reputable public health organization -- didn't make a difference at all.

Another trick is to focus a reader on beliefs, rather than explanations. One study from 2013 asked 204 participants their opinion on a number of issues, from healthcare to curbing climate change. But the researchers picked one of those complicated topics and asked half the participants exactly how a solution they favored would work, giving concrete details.

The other half were just asked to give reasons why they support or oppose it. People who had to explain how it worked were a little less extreme in their support of the issue afterward. Then, they were offered a little bit of cash.

And people in the group who gave /reasons/, rather than specific details, were more likely to pass it along to an organization that supported their view. So it seems like this kind of thinking would also motivate people to pass along posts that show support for their views. Another really effective strategy is to evoke strong emotions.

An experiment done in 2008 demonstrated this by obtaining data on articles from the front page of the New York Times website, over 2500 in all. They sorted them according to the emotions they evoked, and looked to see which articles made it to their most-emailed list. They were specifically looking for the kinds of feelings that motivate action -- like anxiety, anger, and awe.

And they found awe boosted the chances of getting on the most-emailed list by 30% -- for anger, the figure was 34%. So how can you avoid getting baited by fake stories that are /great/ at getting you to share them? One thing to note is that just knowing more doesn't always help you avoid false claims.

Which also means falling for a fake account doesn't make you ignorant. In fact, a handful of studies have shown that if you have more science knowledge or more math ability, it can actually make you better at rationalizing new information so it fits your political opinions. In one such study, people were likely to misinterpret the results of a fake study about gun control if it conflicted with their politics -- but they got worse at it, not better, if they were better at math.

This phenomenon is comparable to confirmation bias -- you're more likely to think critically and defensively if you think the headline goes against something you already believe. And some people were, perhaps ironically, better at that defensive thinking. One thing that seemed to help, however, was being more curious.

In some similar studies, people who were more curious were more likely to click on surprising headlines to read them, even if it went against their political beliefs. Others have found a few smaller clues to look out for -- like, posts from fake accounts that have been purged by Facebook were more likely to mix up or omit articles like “a” or “the.” They also love to camouflage themselves with stories about sports or baking between inflammatory political articles, to make it seem like they’re Real People with Interests. But one simple, effective strategy is to just... slow down and take your time before you share things.

In a study published in 2019, some researchers gave over three thousand people a bunch of real or fake headlines, and asked them to pick which were which. They included a mix of things that either liberals or conservatives would be inclined to believe. The researchers also gave participants a list of a few trick-question word problems.

They weren’t super hard, but they were written in such a way as to make a /wrong/ answer pop into your mind first. The kind of mistake that you can usually avoid if you just double-check. People who did a little more double-checking, and scored better on the math test, were less likely to share fake stories.

And it worked even if the headline contradicted their political beliefs. Most of these solutions were worked out in lab studies, so we don’t know for sure if real-life scenarios would unfold the same way. But it’s probably worth a shot.

So when you see a headline in a post you’re considering sharing, try reading it with open-minded curiosity -- and just do a little bit of double-checking before you pass it along. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. We double-checked and decided that yeah, we really like our patrons a lot.

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