Why Are We Still Falling for Fake News?

Study finds that humans believe what they see.

Posted May 29, 2019

Fake News
Source: Pixabay

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see,” wrote Edgar Allen Poe in 1845. These were prophetic words, especially when you think about what we “see” today. Just consider the doctored videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, manipulated to make her appear incoherent or drunk, still being circulated on social media. These edited videos have been shared even by those who rail most loudly about “fake news.” 

How many of us viewed these altered videos and simply believed what we saw? Unfortunately, if research is to be believed, lots of us. According to this study, just being exposed to fake news can increase one’s belief in it. In “Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News,” researchers find that “even a single exposure increases subsequent perceptions of accuracy.” Additionally:

     "...this ‘illusory truth effect’ for fake news headlines occurs despite a low level of overall believability, and even when the stories are labeled as contested by fact-checkers or are inconsistent with the reader’s political ideology. These results suggest that social media platforms help to incubate belief in blatantly false news stories, and that tagging such stories as disputed is not an effective solution to this problem."

Sadly, “tagging such stories as disputed” is pretty much the sum total of Facebook’s response to the misleading videos. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Facebook’s president for product policy and counterterrorism, Monika Bickert, explained that the social media giant, on which the Pelosi videos initially went viral, decided to simply “let people know that it’s false, so they can make their own informed choice.”

The problem with Facebook’s policy of simply letting people know when videos are false, which they do by posting tiny information boxes next to videos that link to information provided by third-party fact-checkers, is that even if someone takes the time and trouble to click on the box, the damage has already been done: Humans believe what they see and are notoriously terrible at making informed choices about online information, especially when that information is at odds with what they already believe.

Humans, Old and Young, Are Fooled by Fake

survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that asked U.S. adults to categorize five factual statements and five opinion statements found that only about a quarter could accurately classify all five factual statements (26 percent), and about a third could classify all five opinion statements (35 percent). Younger Americans were a tad better at this task: A third (32 percent) of 18- to 49-year-olds were able to identify the five facts as facts. But that still left two-thirds unable to do so.

It gets worse with kids in school. In 2016, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education discovered that middle school, high school, and even college-age kids’ ability to effectively evaluate the information they find online is, in a word, “bleak.” According to their study, which focused on students in 12 states, “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when they evaluate information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

Why We Should Be Terrified

The ability for an electorate to make informed decisions about important matters should be predicated on everyone working from the same set of facts. But from young to old, American citizens are still struggling to detect truth from fiction online, and most social media companies aren't helping (to its credit, Google's YouTube took the Pelosi videos down). While this essential skill should be taught in school—it’s called media literacy, by the way—few schools make time for such lessons.

It’s incredibly easy for anyone with rudimentary editing skills and access to WiFi (that's essentially every kid today) to make media that susceptible brains believe. Even worse, there are advanced editing techniques and Internet users out there ready to employ new technologies to dupe us. Already we have witnessed some excellent “deep fake” videos—in which someone takes a video or image of a person and alters it to look like they said something they never said—altering perceptions of reality. 

Keep in mind that Facebook does not have a policy which stipulates that the information it shares must be true. Yet social media networks like Facebook are where two-thirds of adults get their news today, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, Facebook owns Instagram, where the next generation of voting citizens hangs out. Yet some reports suggest that Instagram isn't taking Facebook's step of labeling posts as false, leaving its users even more susceptible to falling for fake.

What Can You Do?

1. Educate Yourself About Media Literacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education website is a great place to start.

2. Advocate for Media Literacy Education. Ask your children's (or grandchildren's) schools if they are teaching media literacy. If they say no, ask why not.

3. Take Matters Into Your Own Hands. In "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology," I offer at-home activities that parents and children can do together to learn media literacy skills.

Facebook Image Credit: HBRH/Shutterstock


Pennycook, Gordon and Cannon, Tyrone and Rand, David G., Prior Exposure Increases Perceived Accuracy of Fake News (May 3, 2018). Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1865-1880.DOI: 10.1037/xge0000465. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2958246 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2958246