People with 'need for chaos' fueling online disinformation, according to research by Temple professor

Pat Loeb
September 29, 2019 - 4:30 am

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Social media has aided the viral spread of false information. But who are the people behind the stories, the ones sharing even the most outrageous fiction? That's what a team of researchers, including a political science professor from Temple University, set out to find. 

The team that includes Prof. Vin Arceneaux identified a personality type that has what they call a "need for chaos." These are not naive types who share conspiracy theories and other hostile political rumors because they think they might be true.

"It's actually worse," said Arceneaux. "These are folks that don't necessarily believe it. They see it and say, 'this is going to cause trouble so I'm going to share it to cause trouble.'"

Arcineaux says their research found these are people who feel left out of the mainstream, who want a higher social status and they see sewing chaos as a way to get there. 

"They tend to be lonelier," he said. "They tend to see themselves as being on the bottom part of the social hierarchy. At the same time, they're status-seeking so these are the type of people who like to take risks to increase their status."

In surveys, they identified with statements such as "We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over;" or "When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking 'just let them all burn.'” 

Arcineaux says it's not so different from the anarchy movement 100 years ago, in which people reacted to the disruption and economic dislocation of the industrial revolution.

"This time it's income inequality and globalization," he said.

Arcineaux says these used to be a fringe element but social media has given them unprecedented influence, something he sees as potentially dangerous.

"Right now it's contained online," he explained, "but those things can bleed out and we are seeing this. Some of the mass shootings that are happening here and elsewhere have been inspired by this kind of ideology, that 'we need to wipe out all of the things that are bad and evil and reconstitute society,' and those things are being fomented by behavior like this."

Their study is called "A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies." 

Co-authors are Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen of Aarhus University in Denmark. It won the award for best paper on political psychology from the American Political Science Association.