Why Fake News Fools the Best of Us

Fake news. Prior to our last election cycle, those weren't words we heard much. But today, thanks to social media, fake news travels faster than ever. With 2.23 billion monthly active users, it's no surprise that Facebook is the prevailing agent. A 2018 study in Science shows that fake news - whether it be unintentional misinformation or malicious propaganda - actually spreads more quickly than true news. Their findings included:

  • False news stories were 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true stories.
  • It took true stories around six times longer to reach 1,500 people.

This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and a few other dead white guys:

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

In every cognitive process, there are instantaneous and subconscious processes also at work. The exact nature of the subconscious mind on cognitive function is greatly debated, however, numerous studies show that the unconscious mind gathers and processes information much faster than the conscious brain… and often times it tricks us into believing things are true when they are not.

The illusory truth effect is one example. Also known as the reiteration effect, this phenomenon explains a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth. The illusory truth effect was first observed by a research team lead by Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto in 1977. They observed that people rated repeated statements as “more probably true” than new statements. Hasher’s team asserted that when we assess whether something is true or not, we rely on two things: how well it aligns with what we already know to be true and how familiar it feels.

Fake news and political propaganda are rooted in the illusory effect. In a 2012 study conducted by Danielle Polage at Central Washington University, subjects were exposed to false news stories presented as true. Five weeks later, those who had read the fake news rated them as more truthful than those who had not.  The results also revealed that even though participants may have been aware that they were exposed to the story during the course of the experiment, they believed that they had heard or read about the story from somewhere else. Repeating false claims not only increases believability but may also result in the false belief that they had been heard about previously and from more than one source or from a highly credible source which increases the communication cycle of the false information. 

Most of us like to think we could easily discern fake news headlines from the real thing. But it turns out, we might not be as skilled at it as we think. It's a good thought to remember the next time you see something crazy on Facebook. 

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