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Why We Believe Fake News

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ARIZONA - March 26, 2019

According to Edelman's Trust Barometer, almost 50 percent of American citizens trust the mass media and only 37 percent in Britain. And the media itself is partly to blame.

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Edelman's Trust Barometer: 'Informed public' (in dark blue) trusts institutions more than the general population

In a statement to the Associated Press, CNN International said the independent panel of judges who awarded Claas Relotius the Journalist of the Year and Print Journalist of the Year awards four years ago unanimously decided to remove them following revelations about his fraud.

Recent figures said that Spiegel reporter Claas Relotius Klaas Relation, winner of the Journalist of the Year title, according to CNN, simply made up his stories, and even a group of 60 fact-checkers couldn’t expose him.

Another former well-known New York Times reporter Jason Blair became a scandal after it was revealed that his articles were plagiarized. Jack Kelley, star reporter at USA Today for two decades, made up articles from the comfort of his home and didn’t hesitate to use other people’s materials, for which he was even nominated a Pulitzer Prize.

And there’s already a diagnosis: The suffering patient journalism will die after 2020.

It would seem it is always possible to drink from the eternal source of truth — to turn to scientists and suppliers of solid red-hot truth. But it's not so simple. Today the crisis of reproducibility rages in science. Scientists have not been able to reproduce, according to various estimates, from 51 percent to 89 percent of the results of preclinical research in medicine, psychology, physics and other fields.

Here's what Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, said about it:

“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.”

When it turns out that hoaxers can get into even the most authoritative media, and scientific knowledge is no longer the ultimate truth, it seems you cannot trust anyone.

Want to Believe

Today there is too much information: Hundreds of scientific articles, journalistic investigations, facts and interpretations are published daily. All this malodorous mass immediately merges into a public sewer called the internet. And thousands of news agencies day and night prowl in this stream of sewage in search of sensations and novelties to be the first to put them on a plate and offer then to a fastidious user. Looks familiar, doesn't it?

unbabel.com/PrtSc

It would seem, this is fine — such expeditious delivery of information won't allow it to go bad. However, efficiency, paradoxically, is not always a good thing: It is obvious the first news is not always the most reliable. At first glance, this doesn't seem like such a big problem in the broadband world: You don't need to run the printing press again to release a retraction — just a couple of clicks. However, new technologies will not be able to correct our thinking just as easily.

Experiments have shown we better remember information that we hear first regardless of its objectivity. This is called the primacy effect. Moreover, even if there is a refutation of fake news or research, that does not mean people will cease to believe in fake information immediately.

Psychologists Lee Cross and Craig Anderson conducted an experiment asking volunteers to read the evidence of a certain hypothesis, and then explained that the evidence was made up. It turned out people still had confidence in the hypothesis even after its refutation.

Given the fact that fake news spread much faster than real news, the primacy effect can be quite consequential.

We always strive to confirm this drafted prejudice, and even when it seems that we are looking for the truth. The tendency to confirm bias is a cognitive distortion, a flaw in our mind, pre-installed in our brain-machine. The essence of it is that we prefer the information that is consistent with our point of view, and we devalue that which contradicts. The most exaggerated example is adherents of conspiracy theories, which have “irrefutable evidence” in their favor, but they carefully don’t pay attention to any arguments against it.

Another tendency is to interpret neutral or contrary evidence in our favor. American scientists selected a group of 901 convinced Democrats and 751 ideological Republicans. The latter had to read a Twitter feed consisting exclusively of news from Democratic media for a month. Democrats, on the contrary, read a feed made up of Republican messages. It would seem the coverage of a different point of view should push a person to a more balanced understanding of his position. However, the results showed the political views of the participants not only didn't change, but also strengthened: Both Democrats and Republicans only became even more confident in their own rightness.

Why We Believe Fake News

According to scientists, this result was explained by the “effect of confirmation bias,” that is, the so-called cognitive distortion in which any information is interpreted in a biased manner, regardless of whether it supports the original views or not. In other words, the participants’ political beliefs influenced how they interpreted the content. Imagine now how serious the problem of propensity to confirm on the internet is, where you can prove or deny anything at all.

Another study published in 2017 in the journal “Intelligence” suggests that some people may have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation. Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person—even after they were explicitly told the information was false.

The “lingering influence” of fake news “is dependent on an individual's level of cognitive ability,” reported psychologists Jonas De Keersmaecker and Arne Roets of Ghent University in “Fake news: incorrect, but hard to correct: the role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions.”

IT-giants only aggravate the situation. Google personalized searches, Facebook feeds based on interests, which are designed to simplify the user’s life, led to the emergence of such a phenomenon as a filter bubble (a term coined by internet activist Eli Pariser). Based on your clicks, geolocation and other personal information, the site kindly provides you with information that it deems most relevant. Thus, if you love video games, you will see posts about games; if you love books or films you will see information about books and films, etc. The problem here is that the fullness of the information is either not displayed to the user, or it is simply ignored by the user. So technology helps us to narrow our horizons to a point of view.

Do you understand? We are forced not to think, instead accepting the decisions of the media and IT giants. Everyone stays in their own bubble, only occasionally making sure his opinion is the right one. Then there are the so-called opinion traders, that is, street heralds hung with imaginary and real regalia, who are ready to sell you the truth for a couple of pieces of silver. A reverent guru in sparkling robes will quickly put everything on the shelves for you, like a mother bird that eats grains of truth and burps digestible information feed directly into the open mouths of internet chicks. This used to work because of the lack of information, and today because of its excess. However, there is a danger in having faith even in recognized authorities. Even Nobel Prize winners believe in astrology and the benefits of vitamin C in the fight against cancer.

Then there’s William Crookes, an outstanding chemist and physicist and President of Royal London Society. He even discovered a new element--thallium. However, his achievements didn’t prevent him from believing in spiritualism.

Opinion traders

We naively think that the collective big brother, who records all our words and records every digital step, will force such heralds to be more careful in their speeches. But this is only an illusion. In less than a year in the White House, Trump put forward 1628 false allegations. But it doesn't matter.

npr.org/PrtSc

You know, Trump supporters will trust him no matter what he does or says. On the other hand, his opponents will not believe a word regardless if it has a grain of truth or not.

There's nothing for sure in this place, including ourselves. However, the honorable public, moving from one information trough to another, naively believes the second feed is better and fresher. Laziness and thinking flaws give rise to the inability to think critically, and banal reluctance once again to move the frontal gurus, before making a repost, lead to mass fakes. But that's okay, the need to check information or to evaluate their own bias will disappear completely. Lawmakers across the globe are already working to ensure that the internet pours out only sweetened truth according to a worldwide standard. Actually, you know, only to protect the population from the corrupting influence of fake news.

Author: USA Really