Since Trump's presidential candidacy, fake news have increasingly been the subject of media attention. In their Bachelor’s thesis "Fake News - Does Perception Matter More Than the Truth?", WHU graduates Johanna Pünder and Isabell Schulze-Lohoff have investigated the impact of false information on the formation of judgement.
1. Why did you choose this topic? In your opinion, to what extent is it relevant on an economic level?
The elections in the USA at the beginning of 2017 were a major reason why we chose fake news as a topic. We consider it highly relevant for the economy. When the news of the bankruptcy of United Airlines' parent company in 2002 were published again six years later and made people believe that the company was bankrupt again, share prices fell dramatically. Even after the clarification, the share did not return to its old level. This example shows that fake news can have a lasting effect not only on its readers but also on entire companies.
2. In your study, you refer to the so-called anchoring effect, which has a significant influence on the formation of judgement when consuming information. What does this anchoring effect look like and which consequences could it cause in connection with fake news?
The anchoring effect describes the fact that when people have to estimate an unknown numerical value, they look for clues in their environment and are influenced by them without knowing it. It does not matter whether these clues are thematically relevant or not. In the context of fake news, this means that the anchor can serve as an anchor regardless of the content and credibility of the news. Even if the reader comes to the conclusion that a certain news item is not true, he could still be influenced by it when assessing the topic.
3. You confronted 240 WHU students with a fake newspaper article as an anchor and examined its impact in terms of the level of information about its truthfulness. What did you discover?
Participants who were not told in the beginning that there could be fake news deviated least from the anchor. In comparison, participants who knew about the possibility of encountering fake news as well as those who had been told that the information was false still turned out to be influenced by the anchor - albeit to a lesser extent.
4. In a second and third step, the participants had the opportunity to obtain further (partly also false) information on the topic and to get the opinion of someone else. What influence does the search for further information have on the formation of judgement according to your study?
Most participants looked for further information if they knew that it could be fake news. Participants who had not been informed that there could be fake news were the second most likely to ask for further information. This phase was least interesting for those participants who already knew that the information was false. The third stage in our experiment confronted the participants with alleged opinions of their circle of friends. The results showed that in almost all groups, the participants' evaluation of the false information was influenced by their friends’ alleged evaluation.
5. How can the awareness of fake news be increased concretely? What should consumers of potential fake news be aware of and how can affected companies deal with it?
Our results show how important it is to increase people's awareness as a crucial tool to combat fake news. Following the public debate on fake news is not enough to reduce the bias of consumers. One measure to raise awareness about the existence of fake news could be to discuss the assessment of source credibility more widely. Another possibility is the "consider-the-opposite" approach, as demonstrated in stage 2 of our experiment. Here, readers are deliberately encouraged to think about arguments that contradict the anchor’s value. Companies affected by fake news should therefore always publish press releases that contradict this news with plausible arguments in order to limit the anchoring effect as much as possible.
The Bachelor’s thesis was supervised by Professor Dr. Peter-J. Jost, Chair of Organization Theory at WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management.