Research Reveals Why Fake News Is So Powerful

Fake news can undermine a free, legitimate press.

Posted Jul 27, 2018

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From International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)
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Fake news takes on a variety of forms ranging from false accusations to deliberate distortion of the facts. The term fake news is a Donald Trump favorite on Twitter. He makes use of the label whenever he disagrees with stories written about him in which he is cast in an unfavorable light.  Researchers have been looking at the problems created by fake news for several years. 

There are at least four daunting problems with what is called fake news. And the solution—education—becomes ever more difficult as fake news proliferates. The key issues include:

  • Confusion about the facts
  • Susceptibility to deception
  • Fabricated stories to tarnish the image of political opponents
  • Repetition to create familiarity with fake news thereby casting doubt on the facts 

Problem One: Confusion with the facts

If there is a smidgen of truth within a false story—and it is similar to a story a person has already embraced—it can be confusing, but also can spur acceptance.

"A Pew Research Center study conducted just after the 2016 election found 64% of adults believe fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion and 23% said they had shared fabricated political stories themselves—sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally." The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online October 19, 2017. 

Problem Two: Misinformation susceptibility

A study published in 2017 in the journal Intelligence suggests that some people may have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation. Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person—even after they were explicitly told the information was false.

The "lingering influence" of fake news "is dependent on an individual's level of cognitive ability," reported psychologists Jonas De Keersmaecker and Arne Roets of Ghent University "Fake news: incorrect, but hard to correct: the role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions."  p.107-110.

Problem Three: Deliberately fabricated news

Writing in Scientific American, David Z. Hambrick and Madeline Marquardt on February 6, 2018 noted:

"As one alarming example, an analysis by the internet media company Buzzfeed revealed that during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the 20 most popular false election stories generated around 1.3 million more Facebook engagements—shares, reactions, and comments—than did the 20 most popular legitimate stories. The most popular fake story was “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.”  

And let's not forget Pizzagate—a debunked conspiracy story of a pedophile ring connected to a Clinton pizzeria. Despite the fact that it was false, it was often repeated.

Problem Four: The illusion factor

If something is repeated often enough, even if it is false, people perceive it as true.  For example, Trump likes to refer to the “failing New York Times." That bit of Trump manufactured fake news was clarified by Paul Glader.  An associate professor of journalism at The King's College in New York City and a media scholar at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership, he wrote the following for Forbes, February 1,  2017.  In the article "10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts," he said:

"After Meryl Streep's anti-Trump and pro-journalism speech at the Golden Globe awards in January, 2017  donations picked up to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Subscriptions to the New York Times and other newspapers have picked up since Donald Trump was elected president according to the Columbia Journalism Review. . . 

"While some may criticize mainstream media outlets for a variety of sins, top outlets such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC News and the New Republic have fired journalists for such ethics violations. That is remarkable in a world where some celebrities, politicians and other realms of media (other than news... such as Hollywood films "based on a true story") can spread falsehood with impunity."

Additionally, Paul Fletcher writing on Feb 11, 2018, for Forbes, had this for a headline: "New York Times Subscription Revenue Topped $1 Billion In 2017."  But such truths often fall into such thinking as "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up." 

The Solution: Intellectual curiosity and credible sources 

Professor Steven Sloman is at Brown University in Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Science. His recent book, with former student, Phil Fernbach is The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Riverhead Press, 2017). He has pointed out that "this illusion of understanding emerges because people fail to distinguish what others know from what they themselves know." For example, it can be seen as a mix-up of understanding by confusing other people's thinking or knowledge with one's own. 

In an interview with VOX, he gave this example—animals loaded onto the ark:

"People who are more reflective are less susceptible to the illusion. There are some simple questions you can use to measure reflectivity. They tend to have this form: How many animals of each kind did Moses load onto the ark? Most people say two, but more reflective people say zero. (It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark.)

"The trick is to not only come to a conclusion, but to verify that conclusion. . . ." 

Today educators often find it challenging to teach the concept of credible sources and verification. For those who question why such documentation necessary, the movie Trumbo has some answers. It portrays an era of the House Un-American Activities and a Hollywood blacklist for those suspected of communism.  Later we saw a similar pattern in which Senator Joe McCarthy became obsessed with communism and the notion that such beliefs infiltrated the US Army.  He held televised hearings and public figures were called to testify and declare loyalty to the country -- victims of a whisper campaign or his "witch hunt." Who Stopped McCarthy?

It may be time to question whether or not "fake news" is falling into the slander category and to see how "witch hunt" is becoming entwined with "fake news."   

Read what Leslie Stahl says: Why Trump Started Fake News

Copyright 2018 Rita Watson