True to Whom? The Global Cultures of Fake News.
Fake news has emerged as an important issue in the early 21st century. Current research in the field has focused on political beliefs as a factor that increases belief in fake news items, but recently the focus has turned to culture. High-context cultures, as defined by the Hofstede cultural dimension of Individualism/Collectivism, show a higher propensity to believe fake news, according to recent research. This piece develops the thought further, by exploring attitudes to fake news from public surveys. The author finds concern with fake news high among collective cultures; such cultures rely on news to reflect popular opinion as much as objective fact. The 5-factor dimensions of Openness and Agreeableness also play a role in concern about fake news, with open and agreeable cultures less concerned by fake news. The author suggests that those dealing with the issue of fake news need to pay greater attention to the contextuality of the messages and less to what can be defined as objective truth. Only by so doing can we counter the destructive effects of the phenomenon.
#fake news #news #social media #SNS #content #propaganda #collectivism #individualism #Hofstede #Hofstede Dimensions #agreeableness #openness #5-factor personality #personality #culture #cultural dimensions #The Culture Factor
In 2023, we hear the phrase “fake news” on many lips. But what meaning do those words really mean?
In many circles, it’s a trope that a message which contradicts the receiver’s preconceptions earns the fake news label.
Some look to authority. Does the source of the message guarantee its truth?
In other places and under other circumstances, audiences believe only in the authority of information. Can we assess the truth based on logical scrutiny alone?
Students of culture will identify the issue of fake news as one of context.
The digital world bombards us with atomized messages. Potentially, it can remove context cues from a message. Or worse, place the message in a false context to earn credibility.
For cultures that rely more heavily on context cues in daily communications, the issue can be critical. This paper explores the issue.
A Matter of Context
Last century, American anthropologist Edward T. Hall distinguished what he called high-context cultures and low-context cultures. This cultural attribute profoundly affects an individual’s interpretation of communications.
Low-context cultures place the greatest value on the content of a message. If the content can be verified objectively—by whatever standards appropriate to the subject matter—then the message holds value. One may hear it from a cub reporter or stranger on the internet, or one might hear it from an expert or leader. The source counts for less than what is said.
High-context cultures take a different approach. While the content of the message is important, the relationship between the sender and receiver bears greatly on the trust one places in it. Communications don’t just transmit facts. The “truth” reveals itself through more than just the words spoken and their literal meaning. As many high-context communicators say, the real message is often “written in the air.”
Hall’s concept arose from a lifetime of anthropological observation, and subsequent data have confirmed the insight. The late Professor Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension of Individualism/Collectivism (IDV) closely parallels the low-context/high-context distinction. Hofstede’s tool quantifies the relationship between context sensitivity and quantitative measures of attitude or behavior around fake news. In the course of this paper, the author will favor the term high-context, unless expressly discussing scores on Hofstede’s dimension of IDV, of which collectivism is the negative pole. Other terms should be interpreted as referring primarily to statistical measures.
This paper examines a selection of relationships defined by such statistics. It uses public data from commercial and NGO sources, as well as cultural measures available to the author as a practitioner with Hofstede Insights.
The former includes such global sources as the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022-2023, and the 2019 Pew Research Centre study on public demand for unbiased news. The latter includes not only Hofstede’s original 6D scores, but OCEAN 5-Factor personality measures gathered by Hofstede Insights. While all care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the correlations, the author cautions against over-reliance on them. In the absence of peer review, readers should take them as a source for hypotheses and as directions for further research.
For the purposes of this paper, the author has employed the definition of fake news cited by Lazer et al. in 2018.
- [Fake news is] fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent.
The author interprets this as material that may show little evidence of “organizational process,” such as urban legends and hearsay.
What does a High-Context Culture Look Like?
We find high-context cultures in much of Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. They characteristically hail from groups of countries which Huib Wursten describes as the Family or Pyramid cultures. On the other hand, many readers of this piece may hail from low-context cultures (for example, North America, Northern Europe, or Australasia.) For those readers, it will be helpful to note the following:
- High-context cultures seek less explicit information. Audiences will make assumptions based on what they already know about the subject rather than looking for added information to confirm the underlying meaning of a text or dialogue.
- Consensus is valued. A putative fact is more credible if many believe it. The wisdom of the crowd carries more weight in high-context cultures.
- Popular acclaim counts for a great deal. If a public figure earns admiration, what they say counts for more. As does their endorsement.
- In the absence of context cues, high-context cultures will impute a context to make sense of the message. Instead, audiences will use what they already know about the subject: the personalities involved, recent events, and any information about the source which can be gleaned.
- Who before what. The imputed context generally relies on a human voice. Arguably, who speaks counts for as much as what is said.
- Collective cultures value social harmony as a means of preserving social stability.
In light of these cultural attributes, the importance of the high-low context distinction in the issue of fake news becomes apparent.
Who Believes Fake News?
Academic study in the area has devoted itself to understanding who is most susceptible to fake news and who is most likely to spread it. Much research has focused on the effect of conservative political beliefs; most have found that conservatism strongly affects belief in and dissemination of fake news. Researchers have suggested that collectivism plays a role, but few studies have measured it explicitly.
Let us look at one study that employs Hofstede’s measure of Individualism/Collectivism.
Early this year, Gupta et al. published a single-source study, elegant in its simplicity and directness.
The researchers measured the culture and politics of a sample of Indian and US respondents and cross-referenced the self-reported likelihood of each to believe examples of fake news. Finally, they selected actual news items which had been proven (objectively) false.
- Studies show that tattooed parents are more likely to abuse, neglect, and starve their children.
- Netflix, a popular video streaming service, is offering users a free one-year subscription due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Tom Brady attributed his success as an NFL quarterback to the “witchcraft” of his wife, Gisele Bündschen/ Virat Kohli attributed his success to the “witchcraft” of his wife, Anushka Sharma.
The study confirmed that conservatives were more likely to believe fake news (β = +0.65, p = 0.0001). Gupta and colleagues note that the result reflects a growing body of research that has reached similar conclusions.
But the study’s findings on collectivism prove just as interesting to students of culture. For example, it showed a relationship between espoused collective values and the propensity to believe fake news (β = +0.21 p = 0.0001).
Looking at the examples above, one can see how an imputed context can make a message seem more credible.
- In the absence of more information on the “studies” which show evidence of abuse or neglect, a context seeker will resort to what their cultural group already assumes about people with tattoos.
- Many context-aware audiences will know about the reports of increasing Netflix subscriptions during the pandemic and may have a perception that the platform’s content leans “Hollywood Liberal”. Such a move may seem in character.
- Context seekers may well consider Tom Brady’s personal story; retirement at the peak of his career, subsequent divorce, and his (arguably) suboptimal return to the field thereafter.
Gupta and colleagues showed a great deal of skill in recognizing and crafting the fake news items; the stories offered just enough detail to impute a context for those who sought it.
The Cultural Environments of Fake News.
Many discussions of fake news make clear value judgments. Fake news is uniformly harmful, destructive, immoral, and just plain wrong.
The establishment of a relationship between collectivism and belief in fake news begs the question: to whom does this matter, and why? Does the world agree on value judgments about fake news?
Let us now turn our attention to that important question. What attitudes do nations hold about fake news? Who regards it as a problem? Does collectivism affect it? Can there be other factors at work? And most importantly, is “fake” news always bad?
Fake News: Trust and Anxiety
Across the globe, people worry about fake news. But they worry at different rates.
If collectivvistic cultures believe fake news more readily, does that mean they stay more relaxed about it? One might assume them to be less vigilant. The data show otherwise.
Edelman asks how many respondents are worried about fake news. In 2022, this figure showed a correlation of +0.61 with collectivism (that is, a negative correlation with Hofstede IDV). In collectivistic China, 80% of those polled said they worried about fake news, compared with 65% of individualistic Britons.
Collectivistric cultures place great trust in institutions generally, and that includes the media. On 2023 figures from Edelman, trust in the media correlates modestly with collectivism (+0.36) and trust in institutions generally correlates with collectivism more strongly. (+0.40)
Edelman reports that, on average, public institutions in China earned an average trust rating of 84%, with trust in the media running at 80%. Again, compare this with 50% of Britons who trust institutions in general and a mere 37% who trust the media.
Collectivism also correlates strongly with an important item from the Pew study in 2018. Pew asks respondents if it is acceptable for the media to do favors for a political party. This correlates notably with collectivism (+0.44) and even more strikingly with the Hofstede measure of Power Distance (PDI). PDI isolates the acceptance of differences in power as part of the natural order—a feature of collective cultures—and the correlation figure is +0.57. 15% of Britons state that it is sometimes acceptable for the media to do a favor for a political party, compared to 41% in collective India or the Philippines. A small lie in the service of the powerful, arguably, might help preserve harmony and social stability.
Quite simply, collectivist cultures rely on strong collective institutions. Such institutions help weave together the social fabric and contribute to a sense of group cohesion and loyalty. The mainstream media, social media, and the government all play a role.
This paper seeks to ask the following question: in collectivist cultures, is the role of the media primarily to police and disseminate objective truth? Or is it rather to reflect collective beliefs and to contribute to group cohesion?
It may seem anathema to those of us from high individualism cultures. But our definition of fake may not hold as much meaning in collective cultures as it does in our own.
A citizen in a collectivist culture no doubt values what we might call objective truth. But far more useful is to gain knowledge of the common subjective interpretation of observable facts. The agreed truth counts for more, perhaps, than the “objective” truth. It has greater utility.
Openness and Agreeableness
Several measures of personality add further understanding to the analysis. The 5-factor OCEAN personality measure of Openness describes a person who stays open to new ideas. The populations in collective countries tend to score lower on this personality dimension: Colombia (-35), Brazil (-31), Mexico (-28), and India (-17) are collectivistic cultures. Individualistic cultures like Australia (45), the United Kingdom (44), the Netherlands (38), the USA (34) and Canada (33) consist of citizens who are far more (in the technical sense of the word) open. Unsurprisingly, while open cultures worry about fake news, they do so less than cultures at the other end of the scale—a country’s Openness score correlates negatively with anxiety about fake news at a staggering -0.73.
Do open cultures, with their appetite for novelty and challenging ideas, overlook the risk that a new piece of information may prove false? Are Open cultures a little too relaxed about fake news?
A similar pattern applies to the OCEAN measure of Agreeableness. At its most basic level, this factor measures our instinct, all other things being equal, to say yes. It is tempting to call it a measure of impulsiveness. The United States is an impulsive culture (Hofstede IvR 68), which may partly explain some of its appetite for fake news.
Agreeable cultures, too, worry less about fake news. The correlation between Agreeableness and the Edelman 2022 measure of worry about fake news is -0.68
While culture is important, these common psychological dispositions of a specific country also affect fake news susceptibility. As with cultural factors, research has begun in the field. But the scope for further research remains open.
True to whom?
In his definitive biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes an incident corroborated by several other sources.
TIME Magazine was to name Steve Jobs Person of the Year in 1982 in recognition of his work to make personal computers ubiquitous. The subject of his contested paternity suit arose in the interview for the feature. A DNA test showed that there was a 94% level of certainty that Jobs had, indeed, fathered Lisa Brennan-Jobs, after whom the first Apple Lisa computer was named. The magazine asked how he could contest paternity in the face of such evidence.
Jobs pointed out that a 94% chance meant that while he could be Lisa’s father, the test meant millions of men in the United States alone might also be her biological dad.
This rattled the editors of TIME. Ultimately, they chose to name the Computer as Person of the Year, an unsatisfying result that caused many a raised eyebrow. But far more sensitive to the emotional and social context in which their readers lived.
Jobs had offered a classic low-context, highly individualistic response. It was absolutely factually correct—not fake news in the slightest. But it was deaf to context. And most of the audience would have judged Jobs to be disingenuous. He didn’t lie, but his words didn’t ring true.
As the world grapples with the spread of fake news, ringing true counts for a great deal. When Steven Colbert coined the term truthiness in 2005, he meant it as a joke. But it hid an important issue.
In collectivistic cultures, knitting oneself ever more tightly into the social fabric of one’s peers motivates a great many attitudes and behaviors. If we know that our opinion is shared in the community, it reassures us.
In individualistic cultures, one may build one’s self-esteem by making up one’s own mind, independent of how others view the conclusion. Facts make the truth, not feelings.
The world of collectivistic cultures, arguably, looks for truthiness as well as truth. What good is an opinion if nobody shares it? Collective cultures look to the news not just as a source of information but to discover the agreed, collective interpretation of that information. Knowing the agreed truth helps everyday life more than an “objective”, out-of-context fact.
Most news, whether in collectivist or individualist cultures, rarely stops only at objective fact in any case. Steve Jobs was an absent father, is the news story, not the result of a DNA test.
In discussing the threat of fake news, we may do well to think about the purpose of the news itself. Every news story arrives in context; it lands in an emotional environment that will determine how useful the story is. In a collective society, which values harmony and stability, an acceptable lie may outperform an uncomfortable truth.
Attention to such context may well prove the key to resisting the pernicious effects of genuinely harmful fake news. We must recognize that for a large portion of the world, objective truth rings hollow outside of a meaningful social context. Fix the context first, and the facts will follow.
 Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, third edition (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional.
 D.M. Lazer, M.A. Baum, Y. Benkler, A.J. Berinsky, K.M. Greenhill, F. Menczer, D. Rothschild, The Science of Fake News, Science 359, (6330) (2018) 1094-1096
 My Hofstede Insights colleague Huib Wursten describes many of these as Family or Pyramid cultures. Wursten, Huib. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture: Leading and Managing in a Globalised World. (2019) Amazon Books. ISBN 1687633347, 9781687633347
 C.M. Parra, M. Gupta, P. Mikalef. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) -enabled Severe Moral Communities and How the (COVID-19) Pandemic Might Bring New Ones. J. Inf. Management 57 (2021) 101709
 M. Gupta, D. Dennehy, C.M. Parra, M. Mäntymäki, Y Divwedi. Fake News Believability: The Effects of Political Beliefs and Espoused Cultural Values. Information and Management 60, (2023) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.im.2022.103745 The authors generously allow the public to use and quote the study by Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
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 Dustin P. Calvillo, Ryan J.B. Garcia, Kiana Bertrand, Tommi A. Mayers, Personality Factors and Self-Reported Political News Consumption Predict Susceptibility to Political Fake News, J. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 174, (2021) 110666, ISSN 0191-8869,