Thursday, January 19, 2023

Hatred of the opposing political camp fuels susceptibility to misinformation that favors one's own side—both among Democrats and Republicans—and particularly among the politically sophisticated

Affective Polarization and Misinformation Belief. Libby Jenke. Political Behavior, Jan 18 2023.

Abstract: While affective polarization has been shown to have serious social consequences, there is little evidence regarding its effects on political attitudes and behavior such as policy preferences, voting, or political information accrual. This paper provides evidence that affective polarization impacts misinformation belief, arguing that citizens with higher levels of affective polarization are more likely to believe in-party-congruent misinformation and less likely to believe out-party-congruent misinformation. The argument is supported by data from the ANES 2020 Social Media Study and the ANES 2020 Time Series Study, which speaks to the generalizability of the relationship. Additionally, a survey experiment provides evidence that the relationship is causal. The results hold among Democrats and Republicans and are independent of the effects of partisan strength and ideological extremity. Furthermore, the relationship between affective polarization and misinformation belief is exacerbated by political sophistication rather than tempered by it, implying that education will not solve the issue. The results speak to the need for work on reducing affective polarization.


This paper tests and confirms four hypotheses across three data sets: the ANES Social Media Study, the ANES Time Series Study, and a survey experiment. The data show that an increase in affective polarization caused an increase in acceptance of in-party-congruent misinformation. But the opposite was true of out-party-congruent misinformation: an increase in affective polarization caused a decrease in acceptance of out-party-congruent misinformation. These associations held for both Democrats and Republicans and were independent of the effects of partisan strength and ideological extremity. The effect of political sophistication on the relationship between affective polarization and misinformation belief was to exacerbate the belief in in-party-congruent misinformation and further reduce the belief in out-party-congruent misinformation. The use of observational data demonstrates the generalizability of the results, and the experimental data demonstrate the causal validity of these claims.

These results affirm that affective polarization has implications for political attitudes and behavior as well as the social consequences that have been well documented (Panagopoulos et al., 2020; Chen & Rohla, 2018; Nicholson et al., 2016; Huber & Malhotra, 2017; Iyengar et al., 2012). They join and expand upon the recent findings of Druckman et al. (2021) and Wagner (2021): in addition to policy stances and turnout likelihood, affective polarization also has a relationship with levels of misinformation belief.

The findings suggest that the increase in affective polarization over the past few years is matched by polarization in terms of partisans’ beliefs. This in turn has both social and political implications. Regarding the social implications, it is difficult to engage in political conversation with someone whose fundamental ideas about what is true differ. If Democrats and Republicans believe the misinformation congruent with their own party and disbelieve the misinformation congruent with the other party, then they will be working from different sets of “facts.” We should expect more rancor in discussions between affectively polarized partisans.

More important are the political implications. Affectively polarized people are more likely to turn out to vote than those less affectively polarized (Wagner, 2021). Since affectively polarized people are more likely to believe in-party-congruent misinformation, their issue and candidate opinions are also more likely to be dependent on false information. Kuklinski et al. (2000) showed that misinformed voters do indeed use the misinformation in forming their political opinions, potentially causing different collective preferences than would exist had they been well informed. Together, these findings imply that those most likely to participate in our democratic process are more likely to have preferences that have been developed through the use of misinformation. Thus, the increase in affective polarization portends trouble for our representative democracy.

There are many avenues for future research on affective polarization and misinformation. First, though this paper has shown that affective polarization causes misinformation belief, it is also possible that misinformation belief increases affective polarization. Believing negative false information about the out-party may increase one’s feelings of anger towards the out party. The two concepts may be mutually reinforcing. This possibility should be examined by future papers. Second, there is an alternative explanation to motivated reasoning for misinformation belief, cheerleading. It is not possible in this study to tell if respondents answered the misinformation questions incorrectly on purpose, cheerleading for their parties rather than giving honest answers. Studies have confirmed that respondents answer misinformation questions truthfully (Peterson & Iyengar, 2021; Berinsky, 2018), and yet this has not been tested in the context of these surveys. A study that did so would offer even more compelling evidence that the specific misinformation questions were answered genuinely.

Work should also focus on validating the mechanisms of the theory presented in this paper. Confirming that motivated reasoning is the mechanism connecting affective polarization and misinformation belief would be useful. Taber and Lodge (2006) suggested that motivated reasoners are more likely to think intuitively when receiving information congruent with their prior beliefs and more likely to think analytically when receiving incongruent information. If this is the case regarding the information processing of affectively polarized citizens, this could suggest solutions besides reducing affective polarization. For example, if using quick or intuitive processing system when receiving in-party-congruent information is the mechanism that causes acceptance of this misinformation, then focusing attention to accuracy could mitigate belief. Indeed, Pennycook et al. (2021) found that shifting people’s attention towards accuracy increased the quality of news that they subsequently shared. It would be useful to know if this shift in focus works for affectively polarized citizens.

Milton Lodge and Charles Taber highlighted an important goal of social science research: finding when affect has negative implications for cognition (Groenendyk & Krupnikov, 2021). What should be added to this goal is the discernment of which of these negative implications have the greatest impact on society. The relationship between affective polarization and misinformation belief shows that affective polarization is concerning not only for the well-being of our society socially but also politically and should renew efforts to identify mechanisms by which it can be reduced.

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