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Why Can't We Quit Fake News?

This post was originally published on February 18, 2019 on Psychology in Action.

Since the 2016 election, the term “fake news” has become a political buzzword and the topic of stories by major news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. Former President Barack Obama (Remnick, 2016) and Pope Francis (Horowitz, 2018) have expressed their concern over the prevalence of fake news, and President Donald Trump is known to regularly accuse news organizations of being fake news (see Grynbaum, 2019). Fake news spread online is linked to acts of violence (Simpson, 2017), potential election interference (Blake, 2018), and inflaming pre-genocide tensions in Myanmar (Mozur, 2018). As alarming articles and op-eds pile up on the ills of fake news, tech companies are scrambling to better monitor and remove such information from their sites (The Guardian, 2018). Given what we know about the threat it poses to society, why can’t we quit fake news?

Before diving into that question, it is helpful to establish what I mean by “fake news.” Fake news is information that seeks to appear legitimate or credible to trying to look like real news (Tandoc, Lim, & Ling, 2018). Accordingly, news satire or news parodies (i.e. The Onion) would not fall under the umbrella of fake news, because (though they create fake content) they do not purport to be legitimate news sites. I will also not discuss native advertising, or the practice of making sponsored content appear like impartial news stories. Instead, I will focus my attention on fake news that uses fabrication or manipulation to misinform or disinform media consumers. In relation to fake news, there is an important distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation tends to be used to describe inadvertent sharing of inaccurate information, whereas disinformation is the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false (Bakir & McStay, 2018). A fake news site that creates a false story to manipulate potential voters is guilty of disinformation, while a person on social media who then shares this story without knowing it is fake would be misinforming his or her followers.

This distinction speaks to the first reason why fake news is hard to quit: It can be hard to tell the difference between fake and legitimate news. A recent study of young professionals (who presumably have significant online experience and are digitally literate) asked respondents to distinguish reliable, factual online content from fake news. Fake news was often indicated by use of all caps, spelling errors, or the absence of credits for information or photos. Only 19% of respondents correctly categorized all or nearly all examples, with 52% of respondents categorizing at least half of the examples incorrectly. This an especially surprising finding given that the majority of respondents indicated feeling very confident in their ability to detect fake news (MindEdge, 2018). Do you think you could do better? Take a similar quiz from The New York Times (Collins & Frenkel, 2018) to see whether or not you can distinguish fake news from real news Detecting fake news is harder than you might think because the advent of the internet and social media allows anyone to create an online platform and declare themselves a legitimate source of information. Though there can be cues as to whether something is fake news (i.e. deliberately inflammatory language) most individuals do not have the motivation or resources to critically evaluate every piece of information they scroll past.

Consequently, people come across and then share false information without realizing it, bringing us to the second reason why fake news is hard to quit: It is so prevalent. Analyses of interactions with news stories in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election found that there was greater engagement with fake news stories than stories from legitimate news organizations on social media (Silverman, Strapagiel, Shaban, & Hall, 2016). For example, a fake story on Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president was shared, liked, and commented on over 960,000 times on Facebook (Price, 2016). Social media has given us the ability to be interconnected and share information instantaneously. The drawback is that social media makes it that much easier for ill-intentioned operators to infiltrate our social networks and disseminate false or misleading information.

Besides being prevalent, repeated exposure to the same false information actually makes it seem truer (known as the illusory truth effect). The illusory truth effect can make it that much harder to discount fake news. For example, Fazio, Brashier, Payne, and Marsh (2015) asked participants to rate their interest in general knowledge statements. These statements were either true or false and either known or unknown. True and false statements were created as a matched pair from one general knowledge trivia statement. Participants either saw the true version (i.e. “Photosynthesis is the name of the process by which plants make their food”) or the false version (i.e. “Chemosynthesis is the name of the process by which plants make their food”). Known statements were facts that 60% of participants answered correctly in a norming study, and unknown facts were those that only 5% of norming participants answered correctly. After rating the interestingness of these statements, participants were warned that they would encounter true and false statements and asked to rate how truthful the statement is (i.e. probably true, possible false, etc.). Participants then rated for truthfulness the same set of general knowledge statements that they had earlier rated for interestingness. Results showed that participants were more likely to rate falsehoods they had seen before as true, even when they should have held accurate prior knowledge. In other words, even if participants knew that photosynthesis, not chemosynthesis, is the process by which plants make their food, they were more likely to rate the false version of this statement as true if they had seen it before. This finding occurred even though participants had been warned that they would be exposed to both true and false statements. A study on news headlines found a similar result. Prior exposure to both fake and real news headlines increased later accuracy ratings for these headlines, even when the fake news headlines were labeled as being Disputed by 3rd Part Fact-Checkers during initial presentation (Pennycook, Cannon, & Rand, 2018).

The third reason that fake news is so hard to quit is that it is designed to make you want it to be true—and then to share it with all of your friends and followers. Fake news plays into emotions and biases that media consumers hold. For instance, belief bias is the tendency for people to believe something that fits with prior beliefs (Newstead, Pollard, Evans, & Allen, 1992). A related phenomenon is confirmation bias (Wason & Johnson-Laird, 1972), in which people tend to seek out information that supports currently held beliefs and attitudes. Fake news largely succeeds by focusing on topics that people feel strongly about (i.e. vaccinations, politics, climate change), which provokes a strong emotional reaction that makes people want to believe in and disseminate the story. As mentioned earlier, people do not always have the resources or motivation to critically evaluate information online. Fake news further exploits this creating targeted content that people do not want to challenge.

In sum, fake news is a notable threat to society that plays into many well-known psychological phenomena. It can easily masquerade as news from legitimate news sources, feels more truthful with each exposure, and is designed to avoid scrutiny by playing into our currently held beliefs and attitudes. Though I do not offer any solutions to fake news in this post, I hope I have given you knowledge about how fake news operates that you can keep in mind the next time you are scrolling through social media.


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  12. Price, R. (2016). A report that fake news ‘outperformed’ real news on Facebook suggests the problem is wildly out of control. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://uk. tion-report-2016-11?r=DE&IR=T.

  13. Remnick, D. ( 2016). Obama reckons with a Trump presidency. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

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