Why Fake News Influences the Herd

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Many years ago, I had a friend who was very distressed about the idea that infant crying would cause brain damage. She had read a blog about it, and the blogger had cited a Harvard study demonstrating that fact. One of the things that I do on a pretty regular basis is look up the source articles for these broadcast study results, and try to determine how accurate the blogger’s interpretation of the study would be. Most of the time, people do not have access to the actual research article, so base their interpretation solely on the abstract (brief summary of the study) which is often available to the public. Due to my subscriptions to journals, I usually have access to the full study, and often the study can seem very different than its boiled down version. In the case of the friend, the Harvard study was actually from an internal newsletter sent to Harvard alumni and supporters explaining some of the exciting research that they were funding. The study itself was proposed to be a population study in Africa, but there never was a publication of the final study results- trust me, I searched exhaustively. Essentially, the proposed study would determine the brain effects of prolonged crying, and this title and brief description had become the basis of the citation for the blogger’s essay on why letting your child cry would create ongoing damage. I sent the source articles to my friend, along with an explanation of why it is important to dig deeper into “evidence” because it may not always be there. I also kept my radar up for more concerns from parents, because it was a pretty popular author who had made this conclusion- my letter to the author never even received a response.

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The current news cycle is indicating that it may be possible that news siphoning and false news reports may have swayed opinions for many Americans. Personally, there were many times in the past year where I have found myself consulting Snopes.com to try to validate different “articles” that are posted online, and have been very concerned about what it must be like to have a Facebook profile with a different political slant. It appears that journalistic integrity is under fire, and this is likely coming from the fact that the standards for journalists have been worn away by our own desire to gain information in small, quick bites. The beauty of investigative journalism is the depth that is taken to understand issues, but our news cycle and monkey brains does not allow for the patience required for this craft. Here are some of the reasons why we need to be better consumers of our information.

We like fast facts, even if they aren’t facts.

There have been some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics lately than seem to be based on very weak science, and the source articles have been sitting on my desk for two weeks. I plan to read them thoroughly and write a rebuttal, but it will take me time to digest this info. Many people would have simply moved on.

We like to see our beliefs confirmed.

The psychological principle of confirmatory bias indicates that we have a preference for information that is consistent with our belief system, and tend to prioritize this information with our attentional focus. I will notice the billboards that speak to my beliefs and interests, and will give very little attention to those that don’t. This is also where news siphoning likely started- social media wants to keep you engaged, and tries to tailor information to the concepts that will gain your attention.

We like pretty things.

I can still remember the first time I saw a meaningful quote on a meme and then was disappointed to find that the quote was entirely inaccurate. I had never even thought to fact-check one of those quotes, because the professionalism of the graphic had to give it credibility.

We are all prejudiced.

The brain loves shortcuts, and it also loves to solve puzzles. The challenge is that the brain gives little priority to accuracy. The way that this works is that we are constantly drawing conclusions and predictions and we tend to overestimate our interpretations. Easy example: the next time you are speeding past a slower driver, who do you expect will be behind the wheel? If you never speed past people, then who do you predict will be driving the car that speeds past you? The only way to battle prejudice is with authentic experience, which leads us to the last major problem.

Many of us are lazy.

Not bothering to check facts or engage with authentic experience with a wide variety of people are some of the simple ways that our laziness leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. I can’t even count the number of times that I have fact-checked a story online or “recommendation” from a blog only to find that there is no or very little truth behind what is being written. This can also be one of the shortfalls of lack of education: it may not seem reasonable or rational to fact check or there can be a suspicion that regular media outlets. We all are to blame for the suspicion, because things have become increasingly more biased.

The news outlets are declaring that they will be filtering to make sure that news stories are not based on fake news. My gut says that this will be ineffective and lengthen the divide, but it will be interesting to see if this course can be righted.

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