By David Braucher, LCSW, PhD
I think of myself as a relatively intelligent person, and yet, like many, I fell for this meme when it turned up in social media. The iconic image of the conspiracy theorist used to be a loner holed up in a cabin in the woods or in his mother’s basement. In isolation, he could construct his theories drawing connections between unrelated events without the benefit of a challenging questioner.
Ironically, we create similar insular worlds through our use of social media. We seek out like-minded people to share ideas that confirm biases we may not even be aware we have.
Two common phenomena contribute to our inability to catch on to our biases, making us prey to fake news: implicit bias and confirmation bias.
Implicit bias refers to the idea that as humans we have a tendency to group people into categories. We are inclined to trust people we consider a member of our own group more than those of a different group. The word implicit indicates that it is a bias that influences us without our knowing it.
As a liberal, I identify with other liberals. I received this bit of fake news from a member of my own group, which led me to trust it. Also, as a liberal, I have an implicit bias regarding Republicans. It wasn’t a leap to imagine that Donald Trump was using his purported belief in Republican’s gullibility to gain power. Who has egg on his face now?
As we all have groups that we belong to, we all have implicit biases. This is one of the reasons why we need others to help call us out, especially members of groups to which we don’t belong. They are more likely to perceive our biases.
I was also susceptible to this piece of fake news because it confirmed what I already thought, my confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe to be true. We are likely to believe “facts” that conform to our beliefs. More startling, we may actually turn a blind eye to facts that contradict our beliefs. We usually think of seeing as believing, but in this case, we don’t see what we don’t already believe.
I always believed that Donald Trump was in the Presidential race for his own gain. Also, he didn’t seem to be ideologically wedded to either party. He had been a campaign contributor to both over the years. So, when I saw this meme I didn’t even question that it could not be real. I overlooked the fact that the photograph depicts him 10 years younger than the date stated and that publishing such a statement would be obviously counterproductive for a Presidential bid. It simply confirmed what I already thought, and I bought it.
A Lethal Combination
When implicit biases and confirmation biases work together, their potential to lead us astray increases exponentially. As our implicit bias leads us to trust and view more positively those of our own group, we become more insulated, only hearing from people of our own group. As those of our own group share our beliefs, they share “facts” that confirm our beliefs. It is a feedback loop, and we end up living in a bubble.
Enter Social Media
Social media works on these biases like steroids, making us susceptible to being seduced into alternative realities constructed by conspiracy theorists. Online we tend to associate with the people who have the same political leanings as we do. This is our implicit bias at work. When our “friends” send us fake news articles that conform to what we already believe, reflecting our confirmation bias, we are likely to buy the "information" wholesale. Moreover, audience optimization in sites like Facebook, ensures that we are fed the news we tend to read, this news further confirms our biases.
Pizzagate is another good example. Negative beliefs about the Democrats led some Republicans to believe a fake news story about a child sex ring being run out of a pizza restaurant with ties to the Democratic Party. One person was so persuaded and outraged, he showed up with a rifle to investigate.
We no longer need to be holed up in a log cabin or socially isolated. We can live in the biggest city in the country, and as long as we keep our faces buried in our smart phones, we will feel connected to the group we belong to and read the information we want to believe. And we will be sitting ducks for anyone who wants to feed us fake news!
We owe it to ourselves to be receptive to people from different groups and with different ideas. They can help us question our assumptions. Sometimes we need a reality check, most often when we don’t even know it.
When sharing “news” on social media, a good rule of thumb is to check it out before you share it. Here are some guidelines from the Huffington Post.
David Braucher, L.C.S.W, Ph.D., is a graduate of The William Alanson White Institute. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Associate Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in The West Village/Chelsea in Manhattan. Visit his webpage: www.drbraucher.com.