Psychology, Gullibility, and the Business of Fake News

On the meaning and misappropriation of the term "fake news"

Posted Jul 01, 2017

Public Domain
Newspaper Carriers (Work Disgraces), Georg Scholz (1921)
Source: Public Domain

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

In response to recent Psych Unseen blogposts about fake news ("Fake News, Echo Chambers & Filter Bubbles: A Survival Guide") and the death of facts ("The Death of Facts: The Emperor's New Epistemology"), the award-winning magazine Spark recently reached out for an interview for an upcoming article about fake news.

A full transcript of the interview is included below:

► How do you define fake news? 

Fake news is false information masquerading as news, especially when the author knows it’s a work of fiction. Recently, the term “fake news” has been misappropriated to describe real news that is at odds with one’s personal opinion. That’s not the same as fake news, but biased news and fact rejection are related issues that are also important in terms of how we produce and consume information.

How have you seen the phenomena change?  Why do you think it has become especially prevalent now?  How has the increase in people reading news online or on social media affected the spread of fake news?

The news media industry has changed drastically over the past 30 years, initially with the proliferation of cable news and now with innumerable online news sources. Unlike the days when there were 3 or 4 national TV networks and a handful of major national newspapers, there are now thousands of different producers of news appearing in our social media feeds, each competing for the attention of consumers who no longer expect to pay for a subscription. With revenues driven primarily by online advertising, the industry has become all about attracting viewers’ “clicks.” As a result, to paraphrase Ted Koppel, news has transformed from being “objective and dull” to “subjective and entertaining” with off-the-cuff opinions replacing the “old-fashioned concept of reporting.” This makes it difficult for consumers to determine what news sources are reliable.

What psychological phenomena (for example, I’ve seen many articles discuss confirmation bias) could make someone more likely to believe or spread fake news? 

Confirmation bias is definitely a major driver of how we consume information on television or online. With so many options that are often sharply divided along political lines, our brains have the tendency to prefer sources that match what we already believe, discarding those that are in conflict. Other related psychological processes, like “cognitive dissonance,” the “backfire effect,” and the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” are relevant, though in terms of online information, I’m just as interested in how the algorithms for Google searches and Facebook feeds create “filter bubbles” that confine us to “echo chambers” with a limited worldview. With these algorithms presenting us with a biased selection of the news tailored to our preferences, our brains are consuming information with “confirmation bias on steroids.”

How significant do you believe its effects have been, especially with regard to the 2016 election?

I think it’s safe to say that there was a significant market for fake news leading up to the election, whether authored by internet entrepreneurs, teenagers in Macedonia, or computerized “bots.”  However, it’s harder to conclude just how much “fake news” actually influenced voting behavior in the 2016 election because it’s not clear to what extent most people allow their initial intuitions about how to vote to be swayed by the news. With confirmation bias in play, it’s quite possible that fake news just gave people more of an internal justification for how they would have voted anyway.

Are there any characteristics that make some people more likely to believe or spread fake news than others?

The universality of confirmation bias makes it relatively easily for the average person to be misled by fake news or biased news.  We all want to see our core beliefs and hopes confirmed.  I think it’s therefore a mistake to imagine, for example, that something like political orientation dictates one’s gullibility, although it was claimed that the market for fake news leading up to the election was much stronger among Trump supporters.  Clearly liberals also fell victim to unrealistic expectations based on unreliable sources of information about the likely election outcome, just as there now seems to be a flourishing market among liberals for news and opinion pieces that suggest that President Trump is likely to be removed from office. That said, the practice of skepticism may help people to become better consumers of news, but skepticism should not be confused with denialism.

What can people do to be more aware of these and recognize fake news before they spread it?

It would seem that the challenge for consumers is to understand that fake news, biased news, and misinformation are ubiquitous and to be vigilant in detecting and then avoiding it, while at the same time not succumbing to nihilistic denialism and claiming that nothing can be trusted, everything is debatable, or that facts don’t exist at all. My advice is to read news from multiple sources from both ends of the political spectrum that have a good track record of objective and reliable reporting. Consume editorials and opinion pieces in moderation and understand them for what they are – don’t mistake them for news. Be aware of confirmation bias and encourage yourself to seek out information and people with opinions that are at odds with what you believe, with a goal of listening and understanding where they come from. Be aware of our tendency to avoid cognitive dissonance and learn how to be at peace with opposing viewpoints.

Do you think that the spread of fake news will get better or worse over the next year or so?

It seems as if awareness about fake news and its potentially harmful effects (e.g. Pizzagate) has increased and that the industry has taken steps to reduce it, but ultimately its future success or failure will be determined by consumer demand.

Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.