In a golden age of fake news (i.e., propaganda) we are becoming more accustomed to politicians spouting self-serving lies. We are also beginning to grasp the complicity of their preferred audience.
There is an astonishing willingness to credit, and repeat, patent falsehoods, such as the claim that President Obama was not born in America and many other counter-factuals spawned by political campaigns.
It is tempting to imagine that such phenomena reveal a seamy side of political tribalism but obliviousness to the truth boasts a long lineage in human evolution: it precedes political campaigns, and transcends tribalism.
Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective
Malicious gossip is reported in all societies and the content of these false, or exaggerated, claims is drearily familiar. Victims are alleged to have been dishonest, to have cheated on their spouse, or to have manifested other personal problems such as ill health, greed, physical weakness, cowardice, excessive self-promotion, poor hygiene, or drug dependence.
The general motivation behind gossip is to bring the target down a peg, to blacken their reputation in the community, and to reduce their standing in the eyes of others.
Gossip can be identified as the main psychological precursor of fake news. If the audience is sufficiently motivated in either case by a shared antipathy towards the target, whether the damaging information is true or false scarcely matters because believing it feels good and serves a social function.
The Persistence of False Beliefs from Brand Loyalty to Religion
The impact of false gossip is just one example of the human willingness to believe what others in the community are saying, regardless of its relationship to the truth, from religious belief systems that contradict everyday experiences to confidence in fashionable brand names that is not backed up by the quality of the product.
The willingness to believe something merely because others believe it is illustrated by nonreligious fiction in addition to religion.
The phenomenon is illustrated by heroes such as Jason, Oedipus, and Hercules, legendary figures who conform to a stereotype of heroic nobility (or hero-type).
The hero-type of a divine king was described by scholars Otto Rank and Lord Raglan (reflecting a predominance of male heroes in the legends they examined). These scholars established 22 distinctive features that range from virgin birth to death atop a hill and disappearance of the body.
No historical person provides a close match with the hero-type, a fact that was used to debunk the historicity of Jesus (1). Despite this, each of the heroes was considered to be historical and placed in history in stories written about them providing further evidence of a willingness to accept uncritically as truth what others are saying.
When Fiction Feels Better than Truth?
If fictitious characters are routinely accepted as truth, we should not be too surprised that fake news sometimes gets more attention than real news stories and is accepted as true by a gullible public. Of course, it is not just a matter of failed objectivity, or skepticism. The public are motivated to believe fiction when doing so feels better than believing the truth.
Opponents of President Obama were pleased by the illusion that he was not American. Tribally-motivated false beliefs have fueled ethnic and political conflict since the dawn of history. Of course, in-group-outgroup thinking is the basis for all sorts of unmotivated group violence from witch hunts and ethnic cleansings to religious wars.
Religious belief systems evolved in part because they help adherents to cope with pain, uncertainty, and loss in their daily lives. Collectively, such belief systems contradict each other even though most claim to be the one true religion. Statistically, most would have to be fakes.
It is more comforting to believe that we shall be reunited with loved ones in an afterlife than to accept that we shall never see them again. Such false beliefs are readily accepted even when they are propagated by convicted con men like Mormon leader Joseph Smith who used used embarrassingly faked texts.
Unfortunately it makes for bad citizenship in a democracy where political leaders are supposed to follow the guidance of the electorate. That is why freedom of expression in general, and a skeptical press in particular, are so important and the invariant targets of authoritarian regimes. It also helps if the electorate is schooled in scientific skepticism and logical rigor.
In the US, the founding fathers set up checks and balances to protect democracy from mob rule on one side and from arbitrary monarchy on the other. They could not have foreseen a scenario in which a mad king would lead the rabble and manipulate them using fake news.
1 Carrier, R. (2014). On the historicity of Jesus: Why we might have reason for doubt. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press.