The Role of Mental Representation in Sharing Misinformation Online

April 4, 2023

Fuzzy-Trace Theory posits that people will be more likely to share misinformation online if it promotes gist mental representations that cue motivationally-relevant values. In this paper, we test these predictions by examining the combined roles of mental representation and valenced affect in decisions to share misinformative articles on Facebook. We present the results of three experiments and two correlational studies providing evidence for Fuzzy-Trace Theory’s predictions. In Studies 1 and 2, we use the largest public dataset of Facebook behavior available to researchers to test the hypothesis that proxies for gist representations in text are associated with to decisions to share information online. Study 3 identifies two mechanisms that are theorized to drive sharing: gist-based mental representation and epistemic valence endorsements – i.e., evaluations about the truth, plausibility, accuracy, etc., of an article. Study 4 confirms that these valence endorsements and endorsement of the correct gist are associated with increased intentions to share misinformation. Finally, in Study 5, we develop a gist-based intervention based on these mechanisms, show that it can reduce intentions to share misinformation, and demonstrate that these findings replicate. Results provide empirical support for Fuzzy-Trace Theory’s predictions regarding how to reduce sharing of misinformation on social media.

Read the preprint on the PsyArXiv website.