Fact check: Why do we believe fake news?

World Sunday 09/July/2023 16:16 PM
By: DW
Fact check: Why do we believe fake news?

Bristol: Whether it's the war in Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic or gender issues, more and more fake news have been circulating on the internet in recent years, especially on emotional and controversial topics. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

But not for everyone: Some internet users are more likely to accept misinformation and fake news as true information than others. In this DW fact check, we look at why that is.

Cognitive distortions fool us
A term that comes up again and again in this context is "cognitive bias." It describes faulty tendencies in human thinking from which we find it difficult to free ourselves.

Among other things, our views, and our preconceived worldview, also called "partisanship" or "confirmation bias" in some specialist articles, play a major role in why we fall for fake news.

Cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky from Bristol University explains the phenomenon: "If I hear something I want to hear because it is in line with my political opinions, yes, then I'll believe it even more."

So we are always biased. For example, those who are convinced that Germany is taking in too many refugees are more inclined to believe news stories that report on local authorities being overburdened or generally say negative things about this group.

Another important "cognitive bias" is that we often simply trust our intuition. It seems unnecessary to us — and is probably too much of a nuisance — to check something again before we internalize it, comment on it, and forward it. Thus, many users only read the headline of articles, but not the actual text.

The Science Post and NPR, for example, tested this by posting misleading headlines. Readers only learned that the whole thing was an experiment if they clicked on the links — which most of them did not do.

Negative content triggers us the most

The "bandwagon effect" also misleads us: According to this phenomenon, people have a tendency to follow the opinions or behaviors of others rather than forming their own opinion. In relation to fake news, this means that we are more likely to believe information if others do so as well.

When we see a social media post with lots of shares and likes, we tend to trust swarm intelligence just like everyone else. As already mentioned most of them share and like without taking a closer look at the content.

Our memory is also not very helpful when it comes to correctly storing what we have seen or read, also described as "persistence of inaccuracy." We often do not recall whether something was true or false.

It is not uncommon for people to claim that a false piece of information was true, even if it was later corrected, for example in the form of a fact check.

Apart from these biases, fake news works so well because we are guided more by emotions than we realize. The fact that false news spreads six times faster than true information is due precisely to this emotionality, Lewandowsky says. "Fake news tends to create outrage in the receiver, the recipient of the message. And we know that people, whether you like it or not, are engaging with outrage, provoking information... That makes it more likely for them to go viral."

The question of personal benefit
A study conducted by the University of Würzburg last year, in which 600 participants were asked to assess the truth of various statements, also revealed that dark personality traits and so-called post-factual epistemic beliefs make us more susceptible to fake news.

"To find out about respondents' beliefs about knowledge and facts, we asked them: 'Do you trust your intuition when you encounter information? How much value do you place on evidence? Do you believe there is such a thing as independent facts at all?,'" the study's lead author, psychologist Jan Philipp Rudloff, told DW.

The evaluation revealed that the participants found it more difficult to distinguish true statements from false ones the more they relied on their gut feeling and the less they believed in the existence of facts.

"And then we also looked at the 'dark factor of personality,' sort of the core of all dark personality traits, such as narcissism or psychopathy," Rudloff said. "They're called dark because those are related to behaviors that we don't socially approve of."

For people with a strong dark personality factor, he said, their own advantage is the most important thing. Everything else — and that could be the truth in some circumstances — becomes subordinate to that.

"The question then is not whether a piece of information is true or not, but whether it benefits them, plays into their cards, serves as justification." Dark personality traits and a problematic understanding of knowledge and facts often go hand in hand, according to Rudloff, and usually manifest themselves at a young age.

The desire for attention and approval
Joe Walther, director of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, points to another important aspect that promotes the spread of fake news. He sees liking, commenting and spreading information on the internet primarily as a social interaction: "I think people often engage in social media (behaviour) in order to feel like they're participating and to be recognized for it."

"So if I send you a crazy story that research has found that short people are more susceptible to fake news than tall people. I doubt such a thing is true, but I think you would appreciate that I sent you that crazy, funny thing and I think people use social media in order to be liked by others, in order to get attention, to be recognized, validated," he said.

At the same time, this example helps to illustrate that users don't share fake news necessarily because they fall for it. Rather, they simply want to entertain and amuse themselves and others. Or they share content precisely because they do NOT believe it to be true.

What can we do to become more resilient?
The reasons why we believe fake news are complex. Among other things, they have to do with our personality and our attitude toward knowledge and facts. Fake news is also an appealing vehicle for networking with others and enjoying attention and approval. There are also various cognitive mechanisms that distort our perception.

The question is: How do we become more resilient? The first step is to become aware of how susceptible we are to manipulation and to be aware that we can never be entirely objective. Jan Rudloff advocates providing students with more meta-level knowledge regarding facts and science.

"Ultimately, in science, it is always the case that you can only find a consensus, a kind of agreement among as many experts as possible. But as new information comes in, what was previously considered fact or consensus can shift."

This is very complex, he said, and it gives some people the impression that facts are arbitrarily determined by politicians and scientists. An example of that is the claim made during the corona pandemic that children would not spread COVID-19 as much — and then it turned out they did.

An approach that goes in a similar direction is the so-called prebunking. With information about fake news and disinformation at their disposal, users can be sensitised even before they encounter it. One idea of that would be to provide an information campaign ahead of an election where a lot of fake news is expected to manipulate voters.