Why do People Believe Fake News?

09/15/2017 09:17 pm ET

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; 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, people pervasively consume fake information. According to a recent estimate, 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.

Apart from the conscious desire for true information, other, unconscious motives drive the belief formation process. Messages may be appealing to people because they respond to their wishes and desires. In these circumstances, messages may be accepted on faith, without much evidence and without extensive verification. Two types of motivation are particularly relevant here: the need for certainty (activated especially 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 can deliver it (e.g., immigrants are responsible for all societal ills; that we are good and others are evil). So, fake messages phrased with simplistic certainty, are more likely to be believed and accepted without much scrutiny.

In a similar manner, messages that assert a specific outcome—whether fake or true— may appeal and be readily accepted, if consistent with what a person would like to believe. Some examples: messages that the coal industry can be revived, that Scaramucci was involved with the Russians, or that global warming is a hoax.

It is of interest in this context that according to recent research on the 2016 campaign, fake news favorable to Trump was more likely to be looked at and accepted than fake news favorable to Clinton. Other data (Jasko & Kruglanski, 2017 [MC1] ) suggest that Trump voters were more motivated and more committed to their candidate than Clinton voters were to theirs. A stronger motivational bias by Trump voters may have led them to be less critical of the fake news.

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 (e.g., that Barrack Obama was member of the KKK), too out of step with what we know, are likely to be rejected, even if motivationally gratifying.

Often, however, one may have very little knowledge with which to confront new, dis-informative messages. Under this condition, 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 2016 electoral campaign finds that more educated people and older people (who presumably have greater experience) were less vulnerable to fake news.

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 a trusted mechanic; when one falls sick one visits the trustworthy family doctor; when feeling hopelessly confused by our over-complicated tax code, one calls a dependable accountant.

In the past, for most informational matters about society, politics and the world, one would turn to respectable societal institutions, such as a governmental agency, a congressional representative, the president, or mass media sources, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or trusted communicators like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or Edward R. Murrow. In those olden days, government and the media enjoyed a grip on trustworthiness, and were widely relied upon.

Those times are gone, alas. Neither the government nor the media enjoy much trust these days. Trust in the United States government started declining in the 1960’s during the Vietnam war, and has continued to wane ever since. Right now, President Donald Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any modern U.S. president so early in his first term. Approval ratings of Congress have dropped significantly since 2002.

Americans, deeply divided along party lines and by philosophy, doubt the media. Conservatives do not trust what they consider liberal-leaning media. Similarly, liberals doubt what they deem conservative-leaning media. President Trump’s feud with the press has only made matters worse, and public trust in the media is at its all-time nadir.

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

In this time of confusion, rapid change and rising turmoil (e.g., the ascendance of Asian powers like China and India, Islamist terrorism, economic instability and the refugee crisis) people clamor for information and get it wherever they can. This demand, along with the vacuum created by mistrust of traditional information sources, has opened the door to an influx of new sources, particularly on the internet, motivated to tell people what they wish to hear, and/or trying to sway people’s opinion in a politically desired direction.

Available evidence suggests that for now the influence of fake news is limited. Nonetheless, the recent proliferation of disinformation campaigns is troubling. As Thomas Jefferson emphasized, a well-informed electorate is the bedrock of democracy. By the same token, a misinformed electorate undermines the logical base of rational governance. It is essential to restore people’s confidence in reliable, fact-checking sources, and reduce media bias whether perceived or real.

In a recent article, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius cited a Pew Research Center poll showing “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 to hold editors’ and journalists’ “feet to the fire,” and insist on fair and unbiased coverage. A possible additional step would be a consciousness-raising campaign concerning the unreliability and unaccountability of random internet stories, and the dangers of misinformation.

Whatever the remedy, 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.

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