The psychology of fake news

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In recent years, ‘fake news’ has become a political buzzword, as the world has turned to post-truth politics, where well-informed discourse has been replaced with quick-read articles, dodgy sources, memes, and conspiracy theories. It’s not a new phenomenon though – false information has carpet-bombed the population with the aim of swaying public opinion for over a century.

In 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre, which lead to an estimated 175 fatalities, was fueled by the white-owned Tulsa Tribune publishing misinformation, falsely claiming a black teenager had attacked a white girl and calling for his lynching. Obviously, the spread of fake news has always been devastating, even before it had a name or became common political rhetoric. So why has it become so commonplace in recent years?

The spread of fake news has always been devastating, even before it had a name or became common political rhetoric

Fake news is content that has little to no basis in fact but is being presented as factually accurate. There are subsets of fake news, ranging from relatively innocent satire and click-baiting, all the way to totally fabricating content, or impersonating genuine sources. Although manipulating and fabricating news, and then publishing this under the name of a reputable source, is recognizably the more severe journalistic offense, even click-baiting or satire can have negative consequences – people often internalize articles without actually reading them, meaning parody or false claims become part of their belief system and world view.

Philips & Milner, authors of You Are Here, a book on fake news in our media landscape, identify three main types of fake news; disinformation (false information that’s been deliberately spread), misinformation (false information inadvertently spread), and malinformation (information rooted in fact but specifically spread to cause harm). They also state that the primary mechanism for fake news spread in the modern world is social media – not only are people who obtain their news mainly from social media more likely to believe fake news and falsehoods, but they’re more likely to digitally share this information to groups of like-minded friends, creating an echo chamber of misinformation.

They also state that the primary mechanism for fake news spread in the modern world is social media

There are multiple psychological factors that make a person more vulnerable to believing any fake news they do come across on their feed. People who feel out of control, and who have higher levels of anxiety tend to be more believing – people are drawn to conspiracy theories, like the recently popularized QAnon, to meet certain psychological needs, like a need for control. Often, fake news presents a simple, understandable narrative, where vulnerable individuals can easily ‘connect the dots’, which is infrequently reflected in real news. This appeals to anxious individuals, as the false certainty they create by believing fake news builds a far more comforting and predictable reality than coincidence and randomness.

Secondly, communities that feel they are under attack, or that their way of life has been threatened often become especially susceptible to conspiratorial thinking, oftentimes wanting to establish their group as the ‘good guys’ and the perceived aggressor as the ‘villain’ in a way that is infrequently found in the nuance of real political discourse.

Communities that feel they are under attack, or that their way of life has been threatened often become especially susceptible to conspiratorial thinking

One of the notable psychological mechanisms that can help to explain many people’s ardent belief in fake news is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search out, interpret and recall information in a way that supports one’s pre-existing beliefs, whilst mentally diminishing or minimizing contrary information. Hence, when someone has already accepted the premise of an article as plausible, because they feel attacked or anxious, and are seeking out reassurance from their media, all information will be subsequently interpreted in a way that reinforces its legitimacy. People legitimize their feelings and biases by surrounding themselves with a cacophony of untruths.

Fake news, more than anything, is a symptom of a society undergoing change. It’s a reaction by people who feel left behind and excluded, like the world is moving on without them. It’s a coping mechanism for them to regain control and retain the principles that their lives are built on. Fake news is a natural byproduct of human social evolution – the cognitive principles that make us highly efficient also create a set of psychological defense protocols, making us vulnerable to misinformation if we are put in the right circumstances. However, psychologically we were not prepared for the breadth of false information created by modern media and the digital age, and we can’t help but be suckered in by falsities.

Image: Christoph Scholz via Flickr

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