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A few simple tricks make the fake news stay in the brain


Bad information is not new. Propagandists and scammers have been selling their brand of proverbial snake oil for years, all to bend people’s thinking to their goals. What is different today is that the digital world is launching information faster and farther than ever.

Our brains can’t always keep up.

This is because we often rely on quick estimates to find out if something is true. These shortcuts, called heuristics, are often based on very simple patterns (SN: 20/09/14, p. 24). For example, most of the information we find in our daily lives is true. So when we are forced to guess, we are often wrong on the side of believing.

There are other shortcuts that encourage information (true or false) to be found in our minds, research on human psychology demonstrates. We take note of information that is new, that triggers our emotions, that supports what we already believe, and that we hear over and over again.

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Most of the time, these shortcuts make us “over-efficient,” leading us quickly to the right answer, says cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Marsh of Duke University. But in fast-moving digital landscapes, those shortcuts “are going to have problems,” she says.

As the various online platforms feed us the information also changes the game. “We don’t just struggle with our own cognitive crutches as humans,” says Jevin West, a computer science scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who wrote the book 2020 Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. "We also struggle with a platform and with algorithms and robots that know how to penetrate our cognitive frailties." The goal, he says, is to "catch the eye on those platforms."

Here, scientists studying misinformation pull back the curtain of some fake posts on social media to show how bad information can sneak into our minds.

Share the news

People pay special attention to new information. “Novelty has an advantage in the information economy in terms of spreading farther, faster, deeper,” says MIT information scientist Sinan Aral and author of The Hype Machine 2020: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health – And how we should adapt. New information can inform our beliefs, behaviors, and predictions in powerful ways. In a study on Twitter behavior that spanned 10 years, Aral and colleagues found more signs of surprise (an indicator that the information was new) in people’s responses to fake news than to real ones.

Sharing new news can also provide a state boost, as any internet influencer knows. “We gain in status when we share new information,” Aral says. "It makes us see what we know."

The new information becomes even more appealing in times of uncertainty, West says. That came at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when researchers and doctors were looking for life-saving treatments. Untested methods (vitamins, garlic and hydroxychloroquine, among others) attracted a lot of attention. “There have not been many answers on how to treat COVID in the onset of the pandemic,” he says.

It admits previous beliefs

Accepting information that is consistent with what we already know to be true can feel like a safe bet. We tend to give less control to these types of messages. “It’s more convenient to find information that fits our narrative,” West says. "And when we face information that breaks that narrative, that's awkward."

But this dependence on our stored knowledge can divert us. People get it wrong with many facts, easily confuse facts and opinions, and claim to know impossible facts, as Marsh and his partner Nadia Brashier of Harvard University wrote in 2020 in the Annual Journal of Psychology. And with so much information being conveyed, it’s easy to find material that fits what you think you know. “As much as I want to believe X, I can go out and find evidence of X,” Marsh says. “If I were anti-vaxxer, I wouldn’t care how many times you told me vaccines are good, because it would be against my global identity,” he says.

Hank Aaron, a baseball and civil rights legend, died on January 22 at the age of 86. Some people soon noticed that they had received a COVID-19 vaccine 17 days earlier. Anti-vaccine groups used his death to blame the vaccines, with no evidence that the vaccine was involved. “It’s so opportunistic,” says global health researcher Tim Mackey of the University of California, San Diego.

Pull of emotions

Playing on emotions is the “dirtiest, simplest trick,” West says.

Indignation, fear, and disgust can catch the reader’s attention. That was what appeared in Aral’s analyzes of more than 126,000 cases of rumors spreading through tweets, reported in 2018 in Science. Investigators found that the false rumors inspired disgust than true information.

“False news is shocking, surprising, boiling blood, inducing anger,” says Aral. "That shock and awe are combined with the news so that the fake news spreads at a much faster rate than the real ones." The presence of emotional language increases the spread of social media messages by about 20 percent for every word that triggers emotions, New York University researchers reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017.

Along with the content of the message, readers ’emotions also matter. People who rely on emotions to evaluate a news story are more likely to be fooled by fake news, as reported by MIT scientist Cameron Martel, and colleagues, in 2020 in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

In repetition

Even the most extravagant idea starts to sound less wild the tenth time we hear it. That was the case long before the internet existed. In a 1945 study, people were more inclined to believe rumors about war rationing that they had already heard before than strangers.

Many recent studies have found similar effects for repetition, a phenomenon sometimes called the "illusory truth effect." Even when people know a statement is false, hearing it over and over again gives it more weight, Marsh says. “I keep it simple. Say it over and over. "

Mackey says there are a lot of repetitions on Twitter, where hashtags can lure a lot of people into a conversation. On July 27, 2020, then-President Donald Trump tweeted a link to a video of a doctor falsely claiming that hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19. Similar tweets erupted shortly after, jumping from an average of about 29,000 tweets a day to more than a million just a day later, Mackey and colleagues reported at the Lancet Digital Health in February. “It just takes bad information for people to run,” Mackey says.

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