People Believe Fake News If It Comes With A Photo

People are more likely to believe something that isn't true if the claim is placed next to a loosely relevant photograph, new research shows.

Dr Eryn Newman, from ANU's Research School of Psychology, has been exploring how people determine truth in a fake-news era.

Newman found that people make the decision to trust information if it has pictures to illustrate the ideas -- but it doesn't even have to show your proof.

“It might be something like 'turtles are deaf' with a photograph of a turtle in the ocean."

Or ‘Nick Cave is alive’ or ‘Nick Cave is dead’ with the same photograph and it leads people to believe both claims in different experiments,” she said.

The study found people were more likely to believe Nick Cave was dead if a photo accompanied the story. IMAGE: Getty Images

“Photos trick us to believe things are true even when they don’t provide evidence for an idea,” Newman said. 

Her work has demonstrated that misappropriation and misrepresentation of images helps drive the growth of fake news, given that photography furnishes evidence.

“For example, when we present a claim about politician or celebrity, people were more likely to believe it when it is paired with a photo of them -- even if it is just a stock photo that provides no evidence."

Newman said pairing an image with a claim favourably influenced a person's reading of the "truthiness" of it 60 to 70 percent of the time.

“Our body of work has found pictures influence belief on all types of topics. It is across the board. We have found the same effect with claims about science, wine, stock markets, general knowledge or celebrities.”

IMAGE: Getty Images

Newman is building on her earlier research  from 2012, which explored "the truthiness effect."

For example, people more often judged the claim “Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches” to be true when the claim appeared with a photo of a bowl of macadamia nuts than when it appeared alone.

"We have found it doesn’t really matter what the claim is about, as long as there is a related photograph with it, it will nudge people toward believing it."

“In this fake news era, we are seeing new ways in which people can succumb to misinformation and I am looking at why they believe it,” Newman said.

IMAGE: Getty Images

“We gave people a false claim about coral and the effects of climate change alongside a photo of a coral reef.

People were more likely to believe the claim, even though the photo of the coral didn’t prove anything about the quality of the information in the statement,” Newman said.

READ MORE: Would You Get Your News From An Artificial Intelligence Newsreader?

READ MORE: Why Twitter Didn't Ban Fake News Grubs Infowars And Alex Jones

Newman said her findings are not limited to misinformation via fake news.

“It is a bigger issue than just fake news. We are all susceptible. It is very hard to detect the variables that affect our judgments in the moment, and we don't always apply general knowledge -- even when we have it available,” Newman said.

Interestingly, most of the study participants were unaware that images swayed their perceptions. Most of whom claimed they were not influenced by the photo, despite the data showing that they were.

“What we are working on right now is looking at ways we can unwind these effects and to get a better understanding of how we can protect ourselves from this cognitive bias.”

Contact the author

Featured image: Hoax photo of a shark attacking a helicopter