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The Four Horsemen of Fake News

Here's how to stop harmful viral disinformation.

Key points

  • Four forces help spread fake news: true lies, mythmakers, heralds, and mass emotions.
  • Fake news often marks politically tense times.
  • To thwart the spread of fake news, each of the forces behind it must be addressed through government, media, and educational efforts.

On a sunny spring day, I supervise my 8-year-old son’s playdate at a local playground. Birds chirp, swings fly high, and breeze blows cherry petals’ white confetti. Then, “Fake news!” a child’s voice rings over the idyllic scene. I turn around, tuning into the conversation. The second-graders are not discussing politics. “Fake news” was just a quick retort. The expression has apparently become so widespread that 8-year-olds now use it to reject each other’s statements.

Only a few years ago, the term “fake news” was comedy routine fodder, a reflection of how surreal our politics have become. It’s not funny now. Conspiracy theories, COVID denialism, vaccine hesitancy, and other “fake news” take a toll on our health and on our democracy.

 Connor Danylenko/Pexels
A masked, hooded figure holds up a burning newspaper.
Source: Connor Danylenko/Pexels

Post-Trump-presidency leaves us grappling with the impact of fake news on our politics and culture. As a psychologist studying mass identity, inter-group conflict, and conspiracy theories, I try to understand how the outlandish stories that fueled the QAnon phenomenon gained such a massive following.

My research led me to the discovery that, with QAnon’s conspiracy theories, as much as with other fake news, four forces advance it toward becoming viral and radicalizing mass publics. These four horsemen of fake news are:

  1. True lies
  2. Mythmakers
  3. Heralds
  4. Mass emotions

1. True lies

True lies are facts around which fake news sprouts. For example, COVID-19 came out of Wuhan, a Chinese city where there really is a virology lab. Conspiracy theories claimed the virus was designed in the lab and released with a sinister purpose. However, credible investigations failed to find evidence that COVID was lab-made, instead linking it to Wuhan local wildlife farming and trade. The truth, dressed into lies, became a conspiracy theory.

A similar transition marked Bill Gates’ entry into the conspiracy theory universe. The truth is, Bill Gates has for years invested in research and advocated for vaccination against diseases like malaria. Gates has also warned about the danger of overpopulation on Earth, and suggested population control (including distribution of contraceptives). These facts combined in the collective mind, and, with some added falsehoods, twisted into a fictional exotic millionaire who would control the population through the use of vaccines.

Even with the craziest-sounding fake news, there’s usually a thread connecting it to a true news story. There really are child traffickers and abusers in power, both in Hollywood and in Washington, D.C. There really are unscrupulous scientists and doctors looking to profit off people’s misery by pushing dangerous pharmaceuticals. Strong emotions about facts can spin them into fiction.

2. Mythmakers

Mythmakers can be cynical, angling to benefit financially or politically from the outrage or fear their story produces. One example is Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Goebbels, who concocted a fake martyrdom out of an associate’s (Horst Wessel) violent death, embellishing an unremarkable life of a thug and a pimp with heroic details, and lying about communists killing Wessel for political reasons, when it was over a money dispute with no ideology involved. Goebbels used the fake news he created to promote fascism, and Wessel became a symbol that radicalized thousands of Germans.

Other mythmakers are naïve, perhaps mentally unwell people seeking attention through their sensational stories. At the onset of Russian hostilities against Ukraine in 2014, Galyna Pyshnyak was among Ukrainian refugees into Russia. She became famous by recounting to Russian news outlets a story about a 3-year-old boy she saw crucified on a newsstand by the Ukrainian military while a crowd of people was made to watch. Independent journalists failed to find any evidence for the incident. Nevertheless, the Russian mainstream media repeatedly aired the interview, radicalizing the Russian public and mobilizing some to travel to the Ukraine's Donbass region to fight on the Russian side against Ukrainian military forces.

In QAnon, mythmaking became an internet community pastime, with all followers encouraged to “do their own research” and “connect the dots” that would inevitably result in their arriving at a conspiracy theory. While there may have been cynical individuals strategically posting “Q-drops,” the QAnon mythmakers were the thousands who participated in embellishing, “interpreting” and augmenting reality into a conspiracy theory.

3. Heralds

Heralds are influential individuals or organizations who promote the true lies. Without the German newspapers that Goebbels controlled, the story of Horst Wessel’s “martyrdom” would have never spread as far and wide as it did. Without the Russian Kremlin-controlled TV stations repeatedly airing the interview with tearful Pyshnyak recalling the “crucifixion,” the Russian public would never have heard a story some refugee told.

In QAnon, too, there were “super-spreaders” in power who retweeted or “liked” conspiracy theories, giving them gravitas and a much wider audience than some Facebook group could dream of. Indeed, when Twitter and Facebook shut down some of these “super-spreader” accounts, such as that of Donald Trump, the amount of fake news circulating online went down by 73%. Fake news withers and dies without heralds to deliver it to the broader public.

5. Mass emotions

Mass emotions create a fertile ground for seeds of disinformation. These emotions may have nothing to do with a particular fake news story. If you’ve ever been in a fight with a loved one about dirty socks, you know how emotions about bigger issues can latch onto something small and unrelated and blow it out of proportion. So, too, the public’s shared fears, resentments, and outrage, will sometimes latch onto a seemingly ridiculous story.

In the 1930s, Germans were outraged about what they thought was unjust treatment by other countries post WWI, economically disastrous for Germany. Germans’ fears of starvation and anger at their humiliation found a perfect outlet in the fake martyrdom of Horst Wessel. They didn’t want the truth: they wanted true lies that soothed their emotional wounds.

Likewise, Russians seeking to justify the outrage they felt toward Ukraine’s rejection of Russian dominance welcomed a gruesome story about Ukrainians’ moral depravity. In repeating it, they felt better about themselves, which appealed to them more than facts.

QAnon capitalized on existing disgust with government corruption and with sexual exploitation of children by religious authorities and by Hollywood and Washington elites. Fake news featuring malevolent members of the American elites offered a convenient outlet for this strong shared emotion. Another shared emotion was distrust in medical professionals, precipitated in part by the opioid prescription painkillers crisis. Fake news claiming the virus was designed in a lab or faked to enrich the powerful resonated with many people’s feelings. Fears and anxieties stirred by COVID-19 latched onto stories about the danger of vaccines, blowing it way out of proportion.

The four horsemen of fake news—true lies, mythmakers, heralds, and mass emotions—are each contributing to the spread of disinformation. To disrupt this spread is to...

Thwart the horsemen

With true lies, sunshine is the best disinfectant. The more transparency around an issue, the less the likelihood of mythologizing. The faster facts are delivered to the public, the less the public’s uncertainty and fear would spin alternative interpretations to fill in the blanks. With COVID-19, for example, rumors of a deadly virus out of China have been circulating long before the U.S. government addressed them, and even then only to minimize the threat. This contributed to the spread of fake news. To stop True Lies, government officials would have done better to brief the public early and often, not dismissing the threat, but providing helpful information and mitigation strategies such as mask-wearing.

Against mythmakers, laughter is the best medicine. The stories the mythmakers concoct are full of logical and factual holes—they are myths. The mythmakers count on their audience’s fear to blind them to the truth, and to accept fake news instead. In the Harry Potter series, a boggart, a magical creature, turned into one’s biggest fear—that is, until a wizard’s “Ridiculus” spell turned that image into more of a spectacle than a spook. A suffocating python’s menace is undone when it’s turned into a feathery boa. Few have John Stewart’s talent for political satire, but the jokes practically write themselves with fake news about lasers in outer space controlled by Jews. Niel DeGrasse Tyson could probably “Ridiculus” this idea right out of the orbit.

For heralds, some filtering may be in order. Social media became public squares. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is not a constitutional right, and spewing dangerous falsehoods in a public space should fall under a similar limitation. Social media giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, have a responsibility to maintain the civility of discourse on their platforms. This includes adjusting the algorithms that suggest content to users, as well as policing foreign or domestic malevolent actors, trolls, or bots.

Mass emotions are the most unwieldy of fake news' four horsemen. The COVID pandemic made all of us more anxious, the lockdowns made us lonely, and they made many people angry. The rise in interest in QAnon’s fake news coincided with this rise in strong mass emotions. Now that COVID infections are receding, their impact on our psychological well-being is still surging. There’s a brewing public mental health crisis that requires immediate attention and concerted interventions. Some promising initiatives already being tried include offering all students in one school district a free mental health evaluation, and up to three free therapy sessions. We need similar opportunities for everybody. To contain fake news, we must address public mental health needs.

Our children, for whom fake news is now so normal that it’s part of their play, deserve a real effort to help them navigate this new reality. Social media literacy and strategies to discern information are no less important for their education than multiplication tables. If fake news is here to stay, we’d better teach our kids how to deal with it.

References

Bloom, M. & Moskalenko, S. (2021). Pastels & Pedophiles: Inside the mind of QAnon. Redwood Press. Stanford, CA

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