Angry voters are (often) misinformed voters

Emotions have always been central to politics but over the last several decades the American political environment has grown increasingly hostile such that anger toward political opponents is often now the default political feeling. National polls—as well as my own surveys—fielded during the 2020 election in the United States suggest we may have reached a boiling point; Republicans were very angry at Joe Biden and his supporters, while Democrats expressed outrage at Donald Trump and the people who support him. This anger could be problematic for many reasons but the heightened emotional atmosphere surrounding the 2020 U.S. election served to undermine truth and facts by further injecting misinformation and misperceptions into the campaign.

Political anger during the 2020 U.S. election encouraged misinformation and false beliefs to thrive. Anger is a powerful motivator of political behavior and exacerbates many of the negative characteristics of partisanship and political identities. For example, angry voters are more likely to consume news and information from like-minded partisan outlets that often spread false and misleading political content. Anger also enhances partisan biases when people evaluate political information, which makes them more prone to believing information unsupported by facts or evidence. So how exactly did political anger increase exposure to and belief in misinformation about the candidates and election in 2020?

Anger Encouraged Partisan Media Use and Engagement

The rise of anger in American politics today has likely contributed to the loss of faith in high-quality sources of information, as well as the growing popularity of hyper-partisan sites online and on social media. If people are angry at mainstream media, they will look elsewhere for political information and increasingly they are turning to partisan pages on Facebook that only further reinforce that anger. Research my colleague and I are conducting on the popularity of hyper-partisan political pages on Facebook mirrors reporting by Kevin Roose at The New York Times indicating that the most engaged (likes, comments, shares) political pages on Facebook tend to be highly partisan and very conservative. In many cases, we find that engagement with posts on the most popular conservative pages outpaces posts from popular mainstream pages by a ratio of more than 5 to 1. While we know few people use these partisan sites or pages exclusively, several of these pages have amassed large audiences and many have several million followers. The problem, of course, is that these sites do not adhere to journalistic standards, are designed to trigger emotional responses in their ideological audiences, and often spread false or misleading content. To make matters worse, this false, emotional content gets shared at a greater rate than less emotional, true information. It is clear that anger amplified partisan content online—some of it false—reaches far beyond its original or intended audience. Looking at this through the lens of anger helps illustrate why highly emotional conspiracy theories like Qanon or Hunter Biden and Burisma received so much traction online in 2020.

Anger Promotes Belief in Political Misinformation

Anger also enhances existing partisan biases when people are exposed to political information, which helps explain some widespread misperceptions during the 2020 campaign. Angry individuals are more likely to process information—including false information—in a way that is consistent with their existing political attitudes or beliefs, leaving them more susceptible to believing misinformation that is damaging to political opponents. Given that much of the political misinformation in circulation during the 2020 election was designed to elicit anger, it is unsurprising that so much misinformation was taken as true.

To better understand the intersection of anger and misinformation in the 2020 election, I fielded a nationally representative, multi-wave survey that asked voters whether they believed several false statements and conspiracy theories about the two candidates for president. These included well known conspiracies theories about Qanon and the coronavirus, as well as prominent claims about Hunter Biden and Donald Trump’s health. What I found was astounding. In every instance—across more than ten false claims about both candidates—the more anger people felt about the candidates, the more likely they were to believe the false statements. For instance, anger at Joe Biden was by far the strongest predictor—even outweighing partisanship—of whether respondents believed false claims about Joe and Hunter Biden’s involvement in Ukraine. Angry voters were even more likely to believe these claims over time—essentially doubling down on their beliefs as the election approached. This was true for both Republicans’ and Democrats’ belief in claims about Biden and Trump.

While there remains much debate about the long-term implications of misinformation, including whether misperceptions affect political behaviors like voting, the pattern from the 2020 U.S. election was unmistakable: angry voters were significantly more likely to be exposed to and believe political misinformation.