An official website of the United States government

The psychology of misinformation
July 1, 2019

The icons of Facebook and WhatsApp.
The icons of Facebook and WhatsApp.

By Barbara Turnbull

In the past few years, it’s become alarmingly clear that misinformation — the spread of incorrect or misleading information — has significant negative impacts on society. From influencing the outcome of elections to increasing doubt about health care practices such as vaccine use, misinformation can be outright dangerous. Information platforms, especially social media like Facebook and WhatsApp, are saturated with misinformed articles and stories.

There are many kinds of misinformation, and some are worse than others. Misinformation might be an article that misrepresents the broader context of a news event or, worse, an article that intentionally deceives readers about the facts of an event.

Why does misinformation spread so easily? First, social media provide an easy platform for misinformation. Second, our brains crave the dramatic and fun stories that misinformation delivers. And third, we like sharing those kinds of engaging content!

When you use social media, the “social” aspect usually overrides your good sense about fact-checking or source credibility. After all, you’re seeing articles that your friends and family shared — why would they spread misinformation? It’s easy to trust things you see on social media because it feels like you have control over whose posts you see. Social media usually provide casual ways to stay in touch with people and view interesting content, as well as places to relax — not to think critically about each piece of information or meme that you come across. But this means that when you mindlessly browse, you are exposed to misinformation while your guard is down. Even though most people would agree that misinformation is something we should combat, it’s usually ourselves who are complicit in — or actively engaging in — the spread of misinformation.

We can’t blame the spread of misinformation solely on social media, though. Misinformation is attractive to us because it is usually dramatic and fun. These kinds of articles have high entertainment value, which makes them more attractive and clickable than the daily political news. And we like reading these sorts of stories — they make us feel good. Ever notice yourself clicking on gruesome or sad stories because you want to find out more? You might be more susceptible to reading misinformed content.

People who produce misinformation know that we like reading these kinds of stories, so they keep making them. And, unfortunately, we complete the cycle of misinformation when we read and share it. Next time you scroll through social media, remember that you can’t always trust the stories and photos that your friends and family share. Try to get out of the cycle of negativity and misinformation by sharing articles that you’ve fact-checked and that make you happy. You can practice good social media etiquette and help curb the spread of misinformation by remembering to ‘Stop, Reflect, and Verify.’


Barbara Turnbull is a Politics major at Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH. She has researched and written about electoral reforms, environmental policy, and women in politics.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YLAI Network or the U.S. government. 

Este artículo está disponible en Español.