Why is Fake News so Effective?

Paul Sullivan
  • Paul Sullivan
  • 6 mars, 2020

Why Is Fake News So Effective?

Did you hear that Pope Francis spoke out in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? Or that climatologists have discovered that the planet’s temperature is actually decreasing? Well, if you did, you have been a victim of fake news. 

Believing Is Easy

You have probably heard a lot about it already. Sometimes called “alternative facts,” fake news consists of “news stories”–despite having no factual basis–which tend to circulate and are “shared” (thanks to Facebook and company) on the internet, gaining endless popularity. Given the nature of social media and the decline of traditional journalism, the situation permits anyone to come across a news headline and deem it to be real. Then, any given reader can publish such ideas (thanks to the “share” button), and then someone new reads such a story and the cycle goes on. So, just about anyone can believe anything, and can likewise make it much easier to share misinformation. 

Fake news is technically nothing new. Propaganda has existed for at least as long as traditional journalism. What is new is the manner in which it’s distributed, and how easily people can share such misinformation. Most alarmingly, social media algorithms tend to present items designed simply to get our attention, whether this “news” is true or not. Also, those same websites may show certain articles to be more popular than they actually are, thus encouraging people to read and share them, even if they originate from disreputable sources. 

Being Critical Is Difficult

The real trouble with fake news is how well it works. The truth of the matter is that, at the end of the day, we tend to believe our first impressions. Even when we have ample evidence to the opposite, we almost always like to stick to our guns. Often, if we read something we agree with, we tend to believe that argument even if we later discover enormous evidence against it. This phenomenon is known as the “Confirmation Bias,” where we seek out information to confirm our beliefs and ignore whatever doesn’t conform to them. That means that we are not so logical and receptive as we ought to be. In fact, we can be quite creative in our ability to interpret as well as to dismiss. You may have noticed that Facebook does an excellent job of preying on this tendency, as we are often shown articles and posts in line with our values. That way, we end up reading articles that reinforce what we believed in the first place. A lot of false information is created and shared this way. 

As you can tell, for all the above reasons, it is very difficult to convince someone that a fake news story is indeed fake. So, why are we like this? Why are we so receptive to fake news? A number of psychologists have concluded that evolution is the culprit here. Back when we were still hunter-gatherers foraging in small tribes, logic and fact were not part of the day-to-day. Rather, it was more important to focus on the practical, the here and now, and in the case of arguments between tribespeople, it would almost always be beneficial to be stubborn. In other words, if one sticks to one’s primary perceptions (which, yes, can be wrong), they are less likely to be taken advantage of. Just think about it: if we were really easily swayed, we would probably be bossed around by just about anyone who wanted to take charge. The odds are, those ancient people who were less stubborn and were easily persuaded by others–they probably didn’t survive the evolutionary process.

Some Tools To Help

It may sound discouraging that we are built to be somewhat ignorant. But don’t take it for granted that we are hard-headed and close-minded. We have come a long way from being foragers. That is, being aware of our biases, we can train ourselves to be critical of fake news. Often, a quick background check on the source will yield whether the publisher is trustworthy or not. Fake news can take many forms, but most often they endorse extreme views, do not deliver a cohesive central message (other than a damning one), and can even feature noticeable spelling and grammar errors, including exaggerated punctuation (meaning that if you see three exclamation points in a row, it is unlikely that a journalist, editor, or fact-checker was involved at any point).

Distinguishing fake news from real news can be challenging. Luckily, there are a few websites that can help.

  1. Here is a legitimate Harvard School cheat sheet on how to spot a fake news article: https://www.summer.harvard.edu/inside-summer/4-tips-spotting-fake-news-story
  2. Here is an evaluation used by the library information and technology platform, ProQuest, to identify real news:
https://blogs.proquest.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Fake-News1.pdf

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think fake news will continue to be a problem in the future? Why or why not?
  2. What are the long-term consequences of fake news?
  3. Have you ever believed a fake news story, or simply been exposed to something that’s clearly fake news?
  4. Is there a clear difference between whatever circulates on the internet (think popular blogs or Instragram stars) and propaganda?
  5. How do you suggest dealing with someone who believes a fake news article?