There’s nothing new about fake news. For as long as there has been news, there has been misinformation, both deliberate and unintentional.
One particular highlight (or lowlight) of fake news was the period around the turn of the 20th century when yellow journalism, a term coined in 1895 to describe journalism that put sales over factual reporting, helped push the United States into war with Spain.
But while there has always been disinformation and poor-quality journalism, things do seem to have gotten much worse in the age of social media. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans see fake news and information as a bigger problem than racism, illegal immigration and terrorism.
But why is fake news such a big issue? If so many people agree that it’s a problem, why do they read, share and promote it? The reason is because fake news is deceptive not just in its content, but in the way it plays on our biases and our predispositions.
Reason 1: How it’s spread
The most common vector for spreading fake news is social media. This form of person-to-person transmission isn’t just incredibly fast, but breeds large amounts of trust.
For the most part, we are friends on social media with people we like and trust. As such, we are more inclined to trust and believe any information shared on it. Simply put, fake news uses the trust that we have in our friends and family to encourage us to trust and believe it too.
In one UK study, one-sixth of participants admitted to believing anything that their friends share on social media. The same study showed that information seen on Facebook was seen as more reliable than information from actual experts.
In short, fake news relies on the trust we have for our friends and family to get us to set aside our doubts and avoid scrutinizing too closely.
Reason 2: It reinforces our preconceived notions
The spread through social media helps fake news in another way. Online, we spend most of our time interacting with people that we agree with. Couple this with algorithms that serve you content that you agree with, and the result is what’s called a social media bubble.
This feeds directly into confirmation bias, which makes us more likely to both seek out and believe anything that supports our opinions and beliefs. In short, people don’t like to be wrong and social media minimizes just how often they are confronted with challenging ideas and information.
What this means is that, when a person encounters fake news on social media, it likely reinforces their preconceived notions and will not be subjected to the scrutiny it would if it ran counter to what they already believed. This makes it more likely that they will then accept the news as fact and even share it on to others for the process to begin all over again.
Reason 3: Publication bias
In addition to reinforcing our preconceptions, fake news also uses another bias against us: The bias in favor of a proven hypothesis.
This is commonly referred to as publication bias in academic research. It’s a problem where studies that have a null result, meaning they fail to prove their hypothesis, often struggle to find publication. This is true even though studies with null results are often just as important as those that prove their hypothesis.
Fake news never fails to provide proof of its claims, even if that proof is wholly fabricated. Since we are wired to take greater interest in and have greater investment in such results, that makes it more interesting and more compelling.
Reason 4: Sensationalism and simplicity
Finally, a lot of important news is very mundane. Things like city council hearings or debates over tax policy may have a major impact on your life, but they are very boring to watch or read about.
Fake news is almost always sensational. It always tells a story and an amazing one at that. The stories fake news brings are simple narratives that are grand into the extremes. In fact, one of the tricks of fake news is to take a relatively mundane event and senationalize it with exaggerated language and misinformation.
The most popular topics for fake news are often things that shock and offend because it elicits an emotional response and encourages us to avoid scrutiny of the information, but to share and pass along.
Fake news doesn’t want you to think and having simple but sensational narratives encourages everyone to not think about it too hard.
All in all, fake news doesn’t have some kind of secret formula that causes it to get shared and spread rapidly. It simply relies on the biases that are in all of us. Combine that with the fact readers often have to make snap judgments as to what to believe and what to discard, it’s surprisingly easy to get an interesting lie to spread like wildfire.
The only defense to fake news is vigilance. Taking the time to check sources before you share and learning how to spot fake news in the wild are two important steps. Likewise, Newsguard can help highlight legitimate sources, taking much of the guesswork out of the process.
Sadly, the truth usually doesn’t have the benefit of biases that fake new exploits. Facts don’t care about how our brains are wired and that is why they often struggle to be heard.
As Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” Nowhere is that more true than online.