Over the past six months the term “fake news” has gone from being the punch line of late night jokes to a topic of grave concern for US intelligence and election officials. The whole world seems to be examining the geopolitical and economic factors contributing to the credibility crisis. After a wild electoral season, many people feel that the social media industry has a big role to play in stemming the flow of misleading information.
But the question remains, who is consuming all this crazy content and why are they doing it? If no one read and shared this stuff, it wouldn’t be a problem, right? According to some of the leading researchers in the field, the answers to these questions may be closer to home than any of us would like to imagine. They point to something fundamental in the way modern humans are interacting with our rapidly evolving technology, something that may be much harder to modify than a Google algorithm. There are many possibilities as to why humans, as a group, seem to fall for fake news so easily.
1. Confirmation Bias - Many industry pundits and researchers say that the evidence points to our human tendency towards confirmation bias. According to William Poundstone, in a Psychology Today article, A Brief History of Fake News, “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.”
In other words, we love to have our beliefs confirmed by others. It makes us feel good. Conversely, confirmation bias make fact checkers who try to debunk ideas that validate us seem like joyless party poopers. According to Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed News, confirmation bias explains why fact-checking and debunking stories almost never achieve the type of reach that the original fake news article got, no matter how outrageous the error.
2. Implicit Bias - Another human glitch that may contribute to our love of fake news is called “implicit bias”. This concept involves our tendency to trust members of our own group more than we trust members of other groups. The word implicit indicates that we are influenced by this bias without even knowing it. S. Shyam Sundar, a researcher from Pennsylvania State University, believes that this bias explains why we fall for fake news, even when the topic is non-partisan. Our implicit bias allows us to ignore the credibility of the news source and may even cause us to downgrade the believability of traditional “gate-keepers” like professional journalists and news editors.
His research suggests that if the final referrer of an article is a friend via a channel like Facebook, we are likely to rate it as more credible than if it came straight from a traditional news source. We even tend to believe our own “curated” feed more than an anonymous one. In a recent article Sundar states, “We can't distinguish between real news and fake news because we don't even question the credibility of the source of news when we are online. Why would we, when we think of ourselves or our friends as the source?”
3. A Lack of Media Literacy - Another recent piece of research from Stanford University shines a light on our inability to keep up with the rapidly changing information landscape. In the study, middle and high school students were tested on their ability to distinguish fact-checked news from fake. The results were shocking. A vast majority of the tech-savvy students seemed to have very little ability to discern between digital fact and fiction. The study revealed a huge gap in today’s educational system where fewer schools have librarians to teach rudimentary research skills and the discipline of “media literacy” has been overlooked in favor of increased instruction in basic reading and math.
Ultimately, as much as we would like to blame massive social media empires and Russian spies for our fake news predicament, our own psychology has to bear at least some of the responsibility. When we mix our confirmation biases with a “curated” social media feed we create an intoxicating cocktail for ourselves. Our implicit bias blinds us to the flaws in all that juicy information that our “friends” constantly share with us. Essentially, our environment is evolving faster than we are.
Thankfully, the Stanford study offers us a small ray of hope. In it, students given some basic media literacy tools were able to dramatically improve their performance at identifying fake news. We may have a few bugs in our human programing, but one thing we still manage to do well is learn and adapt.