العربية

Why do People Believe Fake News?

Fake news Arie Kruglansky Shutterstock 387771151
Fake news Arie Kruglansky Shutterstock 387771151

The disinformation epidemic sweeping the world these days reflects the (economic) logic of supply and demand. The two are closely intertwined: the supply matches (and often incites) the demand, and absent the demand, the supply would dwindle. Why then, one might ask, is there a demand for disinformation? Why are people so eager to receive fake news? The truth of course is that there isn’t, and they aren’t. No one deliberately and consciously desires false information. Quite the opposite, people consciously form their beliefs on the basis of information they assume to be correct. Explicitly, they desire the Truth, the complete Truth and nothing but the Truth. Paradoxically, however, they pervasively consume fake information (a recent estimate has it that during the 2016 elections the average American was exposed to as many as 14 fake news stories). How can we make sense of that enigma? The psychology of motivation has the answer, and it is this:

Apart from the conscious desire for true information other, unconscious, motives drive the belief formation process. In other words, messages may be appealing to people because they respond to their wishes and desires. In those circumstances, they may be accepted on faith, without much evidence and not be subjected to extensive verification. Two types of motivation are particularly relevant here, the need for certainty (activated in particular in times of turmoil and change), and the need for specific outcomes. When the need for certainty is activated, people are attracted to simplistic messages that promise certainty (e.g., that immigrants are responsible for all societal ills, that we are good and others are evil); so, when fake messages are phrased in simplistic, certainty affording way—they are likely to be believed and accepted without much scrutiny. In a similar manner, messages (whether fake or true) that assert a specific outcome (e.g. that the coal industry can be revived, that Scaramucci was involved with the Russians, or that global warming is a hoax) may be appealing to some, if consistent with what they would like to believe and therefore is readily accepted. 

Of course, “wishing does not make it so”, and there are limits to one’s ability to believe something just because it is pleasing, desirable or simplistic. Those limits are imposed by other knowledge that we may have, and that satisfies our desire for the Truth. Statements that are too outlandish, too out of step with what we know—are likely to be rejected even if one found them motivationally gratifying.

Often, however, one may have very little knowledge with which to confront the new possibly dis-informative message; under those conditions, when one simply does not know what to believe, one may be particularly prone to a motivational bias. In contrast, people in the know are less likely to fall prey to fake news in their domain of expertise. Indeed, recent research on the acceptance of fake news during the U.S 2016 electoral campaign finds that more educated people and older people (i.e., who presumably have greater experience) are less vulnerable to fake news.

Of course, normally, when one lacks knowledge in a domain, one tends to turn to a reliable expert who has the requisite know-how. When one’s car breaks down, one calls one’s trusted car mechanic, when one falls sick one visits one’s trustworthy family doctor, when feeling hopelessly confused by our overcomplicated tax code, one calls one’s dependable accountant. In most other informational matters about society, politics and the world one used to turn to respectable societal institutions, the government, the mass media. In those olden days, government and the media enjoyed a monopoly on trustworthiness, and were therefore pervasively relied upon.

Moreover, the proliferation of the transient and seemingly ad hoc social media platforms, the appearance of the cyborg-like internet bots, etc., have transformed completely the informational landscape worldwide and considerably reduced the dominance once enjoyed by media and governmental institutions as credible informational sources.

In these times of confusion, quickly paced change and overall turmoil, people clamor for information and get it wherever they can. This state of affairs and the vacuum created by mistrust of the central informational authorities opened the door to an influx of new sources of information on the internet—motivated either to tell people what they wish to hear, and/or motivated to sway people’s opinion in a politically desired direction.

Available evidence suggests that at least as of now, the influence of fake news is still limited. Nonetheless, the recent proliferation of disinformation campaigns is troubling. As Thomas Jefferson emphasized, a well-informed electorate is the bedrock of democracy. By same token, a misinformed electorate undermines the logical base of rational governance. It is of essential importance to restore people’s confidence in reliable, fact-checking sources and reduce media bias whether perceived or real. In a recent article, David Ignatius cited a Pew Research Center poll whereby “a disturbingly large 72 percent of Americans think news organizations tend to favor one side in covering political or social issues.” As a possible remedy, Ignatius recommends that news organizations revive the institution of an in-house ombudsman that holds editors’ and journalists’ “feet to the fire,” and insists on fair an unbiased coverage. A possible additional route would be a consciousness raising campaign concerning the unreliability and unaccountability of random internet stories, and the dangers of misinformation. Be it as it may, the current disinformation plague is cause for serious concern, and warrants a concerted effort on part of societal institutions aimed at restoring their tarnished credibility.