Cognitive attraction and online misinformation

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The spread of online misinformation has gained mainstream attention in recent years. Here I approach this phenomenon from a cultural evolution and cognitive anthropology perspective, focusing on the idea that some cultural traits can be successful because their content taps into general cognitive biases.

I analyse 260 articles from media outlets included in two authoritative lists of websites known for publishing hoaxes and 'fake news', tracking the presence of negative emotional content, elements associated to disgust, threat-related information, minimally counterintuitive elements, social information, violations of essentialist beliefs, and presence of sexually related material (the last not usually considered in cultural evolution literature).

The analysis shows that these features are, to a different degree, present in most texts, and thus that general cognitive inclinations may contribute to explain the success of online misinformation. I conclude discussing how this account can elucidate questions such as whether and why misinformation online is thriving more than accurate information, whether misinformation online spreads better than offline, or the role of 'fake news' as a weapon of political propaganda.

About Alberto Acerbi
I am a cognitive/evolutionary anthropologist with a particular interest in computational science. I am based in the School of Innovation Science of the Eindhoven University of Technology, where I work in a project called “Darwinizing culture: the status of cultural evolutionary theory as a science”.