How Fake News Affects You

12/07/2016 01:54 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

If the last quarter of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that fake news isn’t just a harmless, digital waste product.

It has consequences.

This month, it led an armed vigilante to a Washington pizzeria, falsely reported to be the headquarters of a child abuse ring led by children’s advocate, mother and grandmother, Hilary Clinton.

In November, fake news created a twisted multiverse, where Donald Trump was tiptoeing towards the White House at the same time as Hilary supporters were performing victory dances at her rallies.

This weird dissonance didn’t happen in a cultural vacuum, either; a BuzzFeed analysis of Facebook engagement during the U.S. election showed that fake – and shall we say partisan – news played a role. It outperformed content from verified publishers, and suggested that social media – the main platform for consumption – was one factor creating this baffling gap between perception and reality.

It’s bad enough that sites like Facebook already cocoon users in what author Eli Pariser calls The Filter Bubble. In this warm and cosy (if mind-numbing) echo chamber, your feed serves up what it thinks you want to see and hear, based on what you’ve already seen and heard. It’s confirmation bias on steroids. And now we learn that, on top of this, the information may not even be true.

Interestingly, and worryingly, social scientists say a cherry-picked worldview isn’t the only psychological effect we have to be concerned about.

A study titled, “When Corrections Fail” conducted the following experiment: subjects read mock news articles with misleading claims – followed by a correction. The results found not only that, “corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions” but that they often cause a “‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

Oh dear. When corrections fail, indeed.

But on a serious note, this isn’t good. If even misinformation that comes labelled with a health warning causes us to double down on misguided beliefs, and we only get exposed to ideas and opinions that we like, it really isn’t good.

As an Atlantic article exploring the effects of political correctness on college campuses pointed out, padded echo chambers run counter to the psychology of a healthy mind. Techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy seek to reduce anxiety, trauma and fear by exposing our assumptions and challenging them, not by filtering, enabling and embellishing them.

By that rationale, filter bubbles lend themselves to psychological frailty; a mind-set that interprets any dissenting opinion as an attack, and foments under-preparedness and a fear of difference.

That’s already proved not to be so good for democracy, and it’s also not good for us.

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