Truth or Truthiness in the Facebook Echo Chamber

Facebook echoes back what we want to hear, leaving us with truthiness not truth

Posted Oct 21, 2013

Truth or truthiness? As I scientist I hope for truth. I hope we all evaluate evidence, determine the real true state of the world, and use that information to guide choices. Yeah right. I know better. Instead people often rely on a sense of truthiness, often what is constantly echoed back to them in their private echo chambers. I’m starting to suspect that Facebook makes truthiness too easy. And I’m worried that I’m as guilty as everyone else.

Serious decisions about the state of the world depend on determining the truth. Or forget the political and consider the personal. Are you being passed over for a promotion at work? Did the ref blow that call in the big game on Sunday? Is trouble brewing in your relationship? Knowing the truth should matter. But the problem becomes the process of how people assess truth.

When people make judgments about the state of the world, they rarely consider the evidence and apply a rational evaluation. Instead we are guided by truthiness – Stephen Colbert’s sense of truth. Truthiness probably isn’t what is true but instead what we think should be true. For example, repetition makes something seem true; repetition gives a statement a sense of truthiness. This is actually a well-known empirical truth in cognitive psychology. In 1977, Lynn Hasher and her colleagues (Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino, 1977) presented people with several statements from various knowledge domains. Some of the statements were true and some were false, but most were of the sort that people didn’t know the true state of the world. Nonetheless, they were asked to rate their certainty that the statements were true or false. Crucially, some of the statements were repeated during second and third sessions several weeks later. Confidence in the truth of the statements increased when repeated. Just hearing the same statement multiple times made the statement seem true; the statements gained in truthiness by being repeated. This finding is generally called the illusory truth effect. The repetition of statements works even from unreliable sources, that is even if the person making the statement isn’t trustworthy. This happens because people generally forget the source, but remember the information.

The argument about the illusory truth effect is that hearing something multiple times makes it easier to process and understand. We make truth (or truthiness) judgments based on how quickly and easily we can process the statement. Thus making the statement easier to read (Reber & Schwarz, 1999) or providing an illustrative picture (Newman, Garry, Bernstein, Kantner, & Lindsay, 2012) also increases truth judgments; that is truthiness.

Here’s what worries me – we have become biased in our selection of media and friends. The number of possible sources for news has grown dramatically and grown more biased in recent years. Do you get your news from Fox News or NPR or the New York Times? By their news channel you shall know their politics. Certain news channels provide a very narrow set of information and repeat similar statements frequently. Thus any statement can collect some truthiness if repeated by the talking heads interpreting the news for you. This is the media echo chamber. A statement echoes through the chamber and acquires truthiness. It doesn’t become true, but we start to feel it should be true and accept it as true.

But I’ve realized this runs deeper that just your news choices. Facebook provides another echo chamber; a place in which only a limited set of views constantly reverberate. Most likely, your Facebook friends overlap a bit in terms of political views and in terms of being supportive of you. They repeat and share political statements that may or may not be true. If you express concern about work or your relationships, you can be sure to get people echoing your views back to you or at the very least hitting the like button. If you complain about the unfairness of the officiating in the big game, several friends will echo that view as well. If you have friends that don’t contribute to the echo chamber with the right message, they may not stay friends. What’s more, not only are the statements echoed, but they’re also presented with cute or pretty pictures. These pictures don’t help you judge the truth, but they do help the statements acquire a sense of truthiness (see the cool paper by Newman et al., 2012, that Stephen Colbert described on his ‘news’ show).

In both news media and Facebook, we actively choose views that echo the other views we hear. We don’t seek out truth. Instead we settle for truthiness. This is disappointing. The internet has made a vast wealth of knowledge accessible with a simple google search (or a Bing search if you are contrarian). It isn’t hard to check on the truths being circulated on Facebook. But people don’t use the power of the internet. Instead truth becomes the message repeated by those we listen to. When we settle for truthiness, we lose any semblance of truth.