A University of New Hampshire researcher found the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with exposure to fake news led people to feel a joint desire to save for the future but also to spend a little bit more to make themselves feel better.
Justin Pomerance, assistant professor of marketing at UNH and co-author of a paper recently published online in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, conducted the study of just over 2,000 people.
Pomerance said after people participating in their three online studies were exposed to infographics about fake news and examples of fake news headlines, or were told they had been exposed to false information, they were asked hypothetical questions about whether they would prefer to have premium meals or more cost-effective food.
The researchers chose food as the hypothetical reward because it is universal.
“For experimental reasons, we were just trying to get everyone on the same page,” Pomerance said. “Food is sort of an obvious one. A lot of people understand the idea behind comfort foods.”
The results showed that those exposed to misinformation were more likely than participants who were not exposed to misinformation or the suggestion of it to want to treat themselves when making purchase decisions and, at the same time, they had the desire to save money due to uncertainty about the future.
One example of a fake news headline used was related to the conspiracy theory linking 5G wireless service technology to the coronavirus outbreak, Pomerance said.
A Jan. 20 post on a French conspiracy website called Les moutons enrages, or “The rabid sheep,” pointed to reports that 5G towers were installed in Wuhan, China, before the outbreak.
The false theory emerged that 5G technology was causing changes to people’s bodies, making them succumb to the virus. This misinformed idea gained momentum in Facebook groups, WhatsApp messages and YouTube videos.
By April, arsonists were setting fire to wireless towers in Europe. There were some 50 fires targeting cell towers and other equipment in Britain that month, according to the Associated Press.
The researchers say company leaders can use this newfound information to help them understand misinformation and how it affects their customers, who may be feeling uncertainty, anxiety and depression due to the impacts of the pandemic in America.
Pomerance, who is new to UNH this year, started his research with his colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2019 using grant funding from the Marketing Science Institute in Cambridge, Mass., but their project morphed once the pandemic hit.
Co-authors of the study include Lawrence Williams, associate professor of marketing, and Nicholas Light, a doctoral candidate. Both are from the University of Colorado.