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Tell Me Lies: Fake News, Source Cues, and Partisan Motivated Reasoning


With the rise of social media and fast-paced news, the American electorate is inundated with information now more than ever. One of the consequences of the increase in technology is the proliferation of fake news. Fake news is defined as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent” (Lazer et al. 2018). The growth of the Internet means that more information is conveniently accessible to people without any sort of vetting for factual basis.

Although scholars have done much to chart the landscape of fake news, less is known about how much people believe it and why. This dissertation seeks to understand the role of news source cues and the individual characteristics and traits that shape the believability of news.

The credibility of a source affects whether people believe what they see, read, or hear. When the source is high in credibility, people are likely to accept the information as true but if the source is low in credibility, people are likely to be skeptical or reject the information. For the news, previous research suggests that source credibility matters in precisely this way (Druckman 2001). Yet, the credibility of a news source can be ambiguous, and people often have biases that predispose them to believing a story. Such is the world of fake news wherein "news organizations" masquerading as reputable sources peddle sensationalistic stories.

Using a nationally representative sample, I conducted a survey experiment featuring ten news stories and a variety of news sources, mainstream and fake. I find little evidence that people are mindful of the news source. Regardless of whether a story comes from a well-established source such as ABC News or an unknown fake news source, people largely disregard news source cues. Instead, in line with the theories of partisan motivated reasoning, respondents react to the partisan tenor of news, believing news that confirms their partisan biases and disbelieving news to the contrary. Aside from partisanship, I also find various traits, some political and some nonpolitical such as the Big 5 personality traits, to help account for who is susceptible to fake news. I find that those who are low in political knowledge, high in self-monitoring, and high in magical thinking are more likely to be susceptible to believing in fake news.

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