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Partisan Polarization Is the Primary Psychological Motivation behind Political Fake News Sharing on Twitter

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2021

Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Mathias Osmundsen, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University,
Alexander Bor, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University,
Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Teaching Associate Professor, School of Communication and Culture—Information Science, Aarhus University,
Anja Bechmann, Professor, School of Communication and Culture, DATALAB, Aarhus University,
Michael Bang Petersen, Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University,


The rise of “fake news” is a major concern in contemporary Western democracies. Yet, research on the psychological motivations behind the spread of political fake news on social media is surprisingly limited. Are citizens who share fake news ignorant and lazy? Are they fueled by sinister motives, seeking to disrupt the social status quo? Or do they seek to attack partisan opponents in an increasingly polarized political environment? This article is the first to test these competing hypotheses based on a careful mapping of psychological profiles of over 2,300 American Twitter users linked to behavioral sharing data and sentiment analyses of more than 500,000 news story headlines. The findings contradict the ignorance perspective but provide some support for the disruption perspective and strong support for the partisan polarization perspective. Thus, individuals who report hating their political opponents are the most likely to share political fake news and selectively share content that is useful for derogating these opponents. Overall, our findings show that fake news sharing is fueled by the same psychological motivations that drive other forms of partisan behavior, including sharing partisan news from traditional and credible news sources.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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