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Fake News Going Viral: The Mediating Effect of Negative Emotions

Social Media
Agenda-Setting
Experimental Design
Georgiana Udrea
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration
Alina Bargaoanu
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration
Nicoleta Corbu
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration
Flavia Durach
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration
Georgiana Udrea
National University of Political Studies and Public Administration

Abstract

This paper examines the viralisation potential of politically biased fake news and its relationship with discrete emotions. In line with recent studies, we contend that at its core, the fake news problem concerns the economics of emotion, specifically how emotions are used and often abused to foster audience’s attention, engagement, and willingness to share content. In this context, and under the current political circumstances in Romania (marked by anti-government protests and public opposition to the ruling political party), our aim is to better understand how people’s susceptibility to disseminate deceitful information is enhanced by various forms and valences of politically biased fake news, and what is the role of specific emotions in explaining this process. Using an experimental design (N=813), this study tests two positive (enthusiasm and contentment) and two negative (anger and fear) discrete emotions as mediators of viralisation effects (i.e. how likely users are to share fake news on a social networking site such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Our results provide evidence that negatively biased fake news enhance people’s willingness to share the news story while positively biased fake news have no significant effect on the viralisation potential. Moreover, the potential for viralisation effects is mediated by negative emotions such as anger and fear, but not by positive ones, such as enthusiasm and contentment. In what emotions are concerned, findings suggest that the valence of the biased news plays an important part in eliciting emotions, mostly in a negative direction. Positive emotions are not increased by positively biased fake news, whereas the negative valence of the biased news plays a significant role in augmenting people’s negative feelings: it either worsens people’s fear or anger, or reduces their contentment or enthusiasm. Although these findings come with all the limitations involved by an experimental design, and are to be particularly considered in the Romanian political context, they nonetheless contribute to deepening our understanding of how discrete emotions mediate effects of viralisation in relation to a topical subject in recent research: fake news. Key words: fake news, viralisation effects, discrete emotions, online digital environment, experimental design