Why in the world do people fall for fake news? I have labeled this alternatively as willful ignorance, gullibility, the failure of the public school system, the dearth of critical thinking and civics instruction, too much drug use, and/or too little vitamin B and fish oil, while still seeking other options. Last week I overheard a conversation in the laundromat that propelled me to dig deeper. Two men were conversing across the rows of washing machines: “Yeah, that’s how the Clintons got rich. When people try to get an application for citizenship, they see something that guarantees they can stay for seven years if they pay a bunch of money, and that goes right to the Clintons.” My internal Wise Woman was urging me not to engage with them, and although I didn’t trust that I could stay cool-headed, my self-righteous, politically correct guardian of accuracy was straining at the leash. However, the change machine was broken, so I had to leave to get quarters. Wise Woman sighed with relief, “Close call. Good move.” However, when I returned one fellow was saying, “Yeah, those baby farms Planned Parenthood has charge $50,000 for every baby.” “Yeah, we’ve got to cut them off from any funding.” Wise Woman was groaning. Somewhere in that mass of amazing untruths, one of the men said something about fact -checking. I put my quarters in the washing machine, told Wise Woman to stuff it, and said as I walked by the closest man on my way out, “You really need to do a whole lot more fact-checking.” He asked, ‘About what?” I replied, “About absolutely everything you said.”
For the sake of the integrity of this column, I did, in fact, fact-check their claims on Snopes.com, Factcheck.org and Pulitzer prize-winning Politifact.com.
I couldn’t find a reference to baby farms of any kind, but I did find an even more imaginative and disgusting accusation that Pepsi and other companies were using fetal tissue from aborted babies in their products. Will people believe anything? (It was false in case there lingers any question.)
Nor could I find any reference to the Clintons getting rich selling visas or citizenship or old campaign buttons, but I have to confess I did not wade through the ten pages of creative and unrelated stories that popped up.
Art Markman, PhD, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, explains that evolutionary biology is responsible in part for our tendency to believe what we hear. He claims that being skeptical takes more effort and that our brains would rather just believe. As social creatures, we’ve survived by being naturally credulous, fitting in, and mimicking the rest of the clan. He says that one damaging result of all the misinformation is the continued influence effect. Research has shown that people tend to continue to believe the first pieces of information they hear even when it is later contradicted. This is true whether they first hear something is true and later reported as false, or if they first hear it is false and later reported to be true.
For example, unproven claims about the dangers of various vaccines have been around for years, leading many people to not vaccinate their children. In February of this year, Darla Shine, the wife of Bill Shine, President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications, tweeted to “bring back” childhood diseases because “they keep you healthy and fight cancer” along with other misleading information. A Facebook meme later blamed the Democrats for letting in “unclean” immigrants from Mexico who were inflected with measles. The irony in that accusation is that the measles virus was eliminated by 2000 in the U.S., and by 2016 in all of North and South America, but there has been an upsurge in measles outbreaks in 2019, caused by unvaccinated international travelers visiting other areas that have not eliminated measles.
Another aspect of the continued influence effect is that the more emotionally vested we are in believing a fake fact, the harder it is to change our stubborn minds. Research at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California showed that when people were given evidence that a belief they held was false, functional brain imaging showed a lot of activity in the part of the brain connected with identity. Scientists also saw activity in the amygdala, an area that helps perceive threat and anxiety. This was interpreted as people defending an attack on their beliefs, just as the body braces itself for a physical attack. The lead researcher, Jonas Kaplan, Ph.D., said that people’s erroneous positions become stronger with a “newly fortified defense.” He explained, “the work suggests that neural systems for emotion and feeling are central to this process, and that the brain has repurposed some of its oldest systems for protecting us against threats to protect us against information that might threaten our sense of who we are.”
An important factor in all of this is that we are deluged with more information than we can process, and we rely on social information to help, or what we think other people are thinking. It’s a rational and reasonable response to uncertainty. We’ve always done this, checking out what others are doing and imitating them. Isn’t that where fads and trends come from? When I lived in Iowa, I learned that older farmers would sometimes decide what to plant based on what they saw neighboring farmers doing rather than seeking out their own answers. The result could be poor crops that weren’t suited to their soil conditions, but they believed that others knew better, and they followed their lead. Tom Chatfield, author and tech philosopher, states, “the understanding of this tendency underlies the online age: what people are thought to be thinking makes the digital world go round.”
Fake news includes deliberately invented stories to make money or manipulate people, distorted partially true stories to propagandize and mislead, or President Trump’s specialty of calling anything fake news that is factually accurate but that he doesn’t agree with. The fallout from the proliferation of misinformation is serious if people become so leery and exhausted from the mind games, that they become less likely to seek out or accept information.
Be on the alert for questionable news. We can be subtly influenced when we’re unaware, and apparently most of us overestimate our ability to recognize false news. Keep a critical mindset about the purpose of the story, avoiding an emotional response. Check out the source. URLs that end in extensions like “infonet” and “offer” are suspect. Has the story been picked up by other well-known news outlets? Examine the evidence. Look for fake images: you can use tools like Google Reverse Image Search to see if an image has been altered or used in the wrong context. Use your common sense! And speak up if you hear questionable stories being passed off as true.