Cognitive and affective processes
Cognitive and affective explanations portray media environment as more handmaiden than driver of misperceptions; instead, they point to the importance of polarisation in terms of how it affects misinformation processing upon exposure (Flynn et al. 2017; Weeks and Garrett 2014). Some downplay the role of misinformation entirely, highlighting processes that operate independently of exposure (e.g. Thorson et al. 2018; Reedy et al. 2014). Similarly, evidence from research on affective polarisation and partisan sorting (e.g. Iyengar et al. 2012; Iyengar and Westwood 2015; Mason 2015, 2016) and expressive responding (e.g. Bullock et al. 2013; Schaffner and Luks 2018) questions a causal role for the media environment.
Motivated reasoning depicts information seeking and processing as goal directed. Accuracy goals produce information seeking and processing aimed at coming to an informed decision. Directional goals are concerned with finding and processing information to support an attitudeconsistent conclusion. With political information, directional goals are presumed to be heavily guided by partisanship (Druckman et al. 2013; Lodge and Taber 2013). This reasoning is particularly important for understanding misinformation in the high-choice media environment (Jerit and Zhao 2020).
Because directional motives are presumed common with respect to political information, motivated reasoning is considered a primary cause of misperceptions (Jerit and Zhao 2020) under the logic that misinformation — like information — is processed to yield attitude-consistent conclusions. There is evidence to this effect. Americans interpret economic information in ways that defend their partisan identities, regardless of accuracy (Schaffner and Roche 2016). Predispositions also predict which conspiracies partisans endorse (Miller et al. 2016). Similarly, when misinformation is corrected or retracted, partisans are reluctant to dismiss it when it reinforces their pre-existing attitudes.
However, it is important to recall that under motivated reasoning, exposure to counter-attitudinal misinformation is unlikely to alter preferences and predispositions because it is consistent with out-group arguments. Rather than persuading, exposure to counter-attitudinal information increases the salience of one’s in-group identity, prompting counter-arguments as part of a defensive strategy (Kunda 1990). Directional motivated reasoning goals should dictate the extent to which congenial misinformation is accepted and disagreeable misinformation is resisted. In short, attitudes and identities determine partisans’ willingness to accept misinformation as fact more than exposure to misinformation shapes their attitudes (Thorson 2016; Nyhan and Reifler 2010). This is especially important in contexts with rising affective polarisation and sorting.
Affective polarisation and sorting
Affective polarisation is sharply rising in America (Iyengar et al. 2012; Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018; Mason and Wronski 2018), and political identities are becoming more coherent through a process called partisan-ideological sorting, in which party becomes more entwined with worldview and social and cultural identity, strengthening partisan identities (Mason 2015,
2016). Sorted partisans have stronger emotional reactions to political information than weaker partisans (Huddy et al. 2015; Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018), and as partisan affect intensifies, it increasingly reflects in-group favouritism and out-group dislike (Iyengar and Krupenkin 2018; Mason and Wronski 2018).
These changes should only exacerbate the influence of cognitive and affective biases upon exposure to misinformation. More sorted and affect-driven partisans seek out and process information as highly motivated reasoners, and counter-attitudinal misinformation will be ignored or processed in ways that reinforce beliefs; the same will be true for attitude-consistent misinformation (Lewandowsky et al. 2005; Gaines et al. 2007; Nyhan and Reifler 2010; Levis-ton et al. 2013).
Research on misperceptions confirms the importance of political identity. When misinformation is worldview consistent, it is more likely to be accepted as fact (Flynn et al. 2017; Weeks and Garrett 2014; Marsh and Yang 2018). Misinformation is used to support existing positions (Reedy et al. 2014), and those with strong political identities accept political misinformation to support in-party evaluations (e.g. Garrett et al. 2016) and embrace misperceptions (e.g. Gaines et al. 2007; Schaffner and Roche 2016), questioning whether misperceptions reflect beliefs about facts or fact bending.
Research on expressive responding questions whether political misperceptions reflect beliefs at all and posits that they instead reflect partisan cheerleading, expression (Bullock et al. 2013; Khanna and Sood 2018; Schaffner and Luks 2018), or the effort to bait researchers (e.g. Lopezand Hillygus 2018). Evidence for expressive responding is mixed, however (Berinsky 2018; Jerit and Zhao 2020). Related work questions misperceptions on measurement (Cor and Sood 2016; Jerit and Zhao 2020), asserting that survey responses reflect guesses or top-of-the-head responses instead of misperceptions, consistent with early work on survey response instability (Zaller and Feldman 1992).