Why We (Often) Believe Fake News

Naive realism and worldview preservation.

Posted Mar 31, 2017

Forgive me, for I am truly obsessed with Donald Trump. Before you get the wrong idea, I can’t stand the guy and I think his policies are a disaster. But the election of Trump, and everything that has gone on since, has me rather enamored in a sort of half intellectually interested and half terrified sort of way.

"Fake news" has been a key part of Trump's presidency and his election. There is ample evidence that Russia generated fake news in order to help sway the election. There is also ample evidence that fake news was flying front, left, and center leading up to the election – on both sides. And of course, Trump has accused pretty much every media outlet outside of Fox News of being fake news, most notably perhaps in his treatment of the New York Times.

The actual definition of fake news is news spread to intentionally deceive people using inaccuracies or things that are entirely made up. This has nothing to do with political bias. Saying Barack Obama saved 5 men from a fire if he didn’t is fake news. Saying Donald Trump’s inaugural crowd wasn’t as large as he claims isn’t fake news. It might be motivated by partisan beliefs. But it is still not fake news. Reality is still reality.

Now why might Trump think that news that speaks badly of him is “fake” even though it isn’t? Why might Trump supporters think many things are true, even though they were most certainly made up by Trump? Why are we all more susceptible to fake news when it matches our own beliefs?

There is a massive amount of research in social psychology on “naive realism.” Naive realism is the notion that people tend to perceive themselves as objective perceivers and thinkers, in relation to both the social and physical worlds. So when we hear or see something consistent with our beliefs, there is a tendency to believe it. If I read that Donald Trump laughed at a homeless person, my near impulse would be to believe that since I have this worldview of Donald Trump as a pretty awful person. If I read that Obama did this, I would be almost impulsively inclined to check if this were true, because frankly, my love for the man runs deep. I would still check the legitimacy of the story if it were Trump, because I try quite hard to not spread falsehoods. But the tendency would still be there.

One line of work consistent with Naive Realism is the “bias blind spot.” This work has asked people, for instance, how susceptible they are to a wide range of psychological biases. So, a study might explain hindsight bias (the tendency for people to think they knew it all along when they didn’t), and then ask people how much they themselves are susceptible to this, and how much they think others are. People will almost always say that they are less susceptible. This work further shows that even when people admit to using biased sources, they still think they reach unbiased, objective conclusions.

Another line of research consistent with Naive Realism shows that people are more critical of research that does not align with their beliefs. They also are more likely to believe an argument if it is made by someone who shares their views, than someone who does not. 

There is also evidence that we tend to overestimate the extent to which other people share our beliefs. This suggests that we tend to think that other people - until we are given reason to think otherwise - will believe how we do. 

In terms of fake news, these bodies of research indicate that we would (a) think that we can determine the legitimacy of the news source with more objectivity than we probably can, (b) think that information that aligns with our existing beliefs - even if it is fake - is more credible than information that does not, and (c) will overestimate the extent to which other people will agree with the news, once we believe it ourselves. This latter point could play a large role in choosing to share fake news, for example, on social media.

Humans are by and large very motivated thinkers who tend to overestimate how rational and objective they are. When it comes to belief in, and the spreading of, fake news, this has massive implications.