Overcoming The Allure Of Fake News


Fake news is not a new problem. Half-truths, massaged facts, and outright lies have always been a part of American politics.

Yet the power of propaganda startled many this election season as new surges of misinformation swept through our screens and newsfeeds. How can so many Trump supporters believe that the unemployment rate has increased in the last eight years? Why did so many Clinton supporters discredit Wikileaks’ documents after identifying an unrelated, obviously fallacious speech transcript?

Gullibility is bipartisan – in fact, our partisanship often predicates our gullibility. Decades of social psychological research finds that our previous beliefs and desired outcomes direct how we process political information. We tend not to criticize arguments that affirm our worldview nearly as much as claims we hope aren’t true.

Motivated gullibility: why fake news spreads

Such motivated skepticism, as it’s called in the scientific literature, can be thought of as a motivated gullibility that enables the spread of misinformation. We’re diligent and detail-oriented when evaluating claims that flatter the opposition, but we can be astonishingly uncritical when considering information that’s favorable to our side. Many Trump supporters want to believe the economy has tanked for the same reason that many Clinton supporters want to believe the Wikileaks’ documents are fake: believing otherwise threatens their worldview.

In other words, we’re most susceptible to fake news when we want to believe the headline.

Blurring the line between reliable and unreliable news

Wrapped into this problem, as education researcher Sam Weinburg and his colleagues recently found, is that many Americans struggle to distinguish reliable from unreliable information in general. Substantial portions of their student samples could not differentiate between “sponsored content” and real news, recognize that a contextless photo was not strong evidence for a claim, or explain why a political organization’s agenda may influence the information they share on Twitter.

These studies were limited to young Americans, but we have every reason to think that many of us share these challenges. #PizzaGate, and the subsequent shooting, is merely one illustration of how the credible and incredible can be blurred in our complex information environment.

Recognizing the danger of motivated skepticism

However, focusing only on our improving digital literacy and critical thinking will not inoculate us from the allure of fake news. Even if when we can notice the subtle, contextual clues that indicate an article is unreliable, our motivated gullibility often hinders such scrutiny. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, research suggests that those with greater cognitive abilities are at least as gullible as the rest of us. The cognitively skilled are better at parsing through data that ostensibly contradicts their beliefs, but when the data seemingly supports their position they’re are as big of suckers as everyone else.

These bias blind spots – noticing all of the flaws in our opponents’ arguments while not recognizing any in our own – arise because we ask different questions when evaluating different lines of evidence. According to psychologists, “Can I believe this?” is the question we ask when presented with belief-consistent information. Unless a claim is outlandishly fictitious, we generally accept it under this low standard of believability.

“Must I believe this?” is the more demanding question we pose when the given information is inconsistent with our beliefs. Even when the data are carefully collected and cautiously interpreted, we search for flaws and limitations when the presented argument goes against our own. Skepticism is necessary to push policy debates forward, but motivated skepticism fosters group polarization and retreats into ideological echo-chambers.

Focusing on overcoming the allure of fake news

Consequently, Facebook’s well-intentioned attempts to crowdsource the fake news problem do not seem poised for much success. Without tackling the appeal of fake news, efforts to harness our targeted skepticism may further polarize rather than unite us. People are unlikely to appreciate the wisdom of crowds when there’s only one crowd they trust. Why must I believe what you believe if I can believe something else?

To ward of the temptations of misinformation, we need to scrutinize our views as much as the views of those with whom we disagree. This is easier said than done, for our group biases are hardwired from our evolutionary past. Nevertheless, we must find ways to instill patterns of thought that make us willing to question our own beliefs, in addition to augmenting the digital literacy and critical reasoning skills that allow us to answer such questions.

For instance, seeking news from outside of your social media is a simple start. As noted by psychologist Jay Van Bavel, there are many outlets, such as PolitiFact and the Congressional Budget Office, that provide more reliable information than what typically populates our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Another way to combat motivated gullibility is to identify and search for information that would change your mind. Actively looking for disconfirming evidence is, admittedly, counterintuitive. Still, we should open ourselves up to being wrong when we actually care about being right.

Many have claimed after this election that we now live in a post-truth society. Yet like many fake news stories, that narrative is, at best, incomplete. Our belief in facts may be relative, but the facts themselves are not. Accepting facts is more psychologically demanding than we may have realized, but we are only as post-truth – individually and collectively – as we allow ourselves to be.

Jared Celniker
About Jared Celniker:

Jared is a PhD student in social psychology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He studies political and moral decision-making and believes that psychological insights can help improve political discourse and policymaking.