Clickbait headlines and Internet auto feeds tempt us into mindless scrolling and passive absorption. They soak into our memories without our awareness and tempt us to share even after just reading the headline. Fake news manipulates stock markets, our political views, and our purchasing habits. It makes us feel connected to celebrities and can divide families. Everybody has an opinion that they are happy to argue about online even if they believe it’s too rude to share at a dinner party. What is fake news? How do bots contribute to fake news? Why does fake news suck us in so expertly? And how can we avoid its seductive allure?
What is “fake news?”
Fake news is false information that’s often designed to inform opinions and tempt sharing. It could be anything from a rumor, deliberate propaganda, or an unintended error. The main concern of fake news is if the distributor intends to deceive its readers.
Widely shared fake news can have all sorts of effects on attitudes and behavior. Fake news about a celebrity may not be harmless, but chances are it won’t have a long-lasting and devastating impact. However, fake news about the spread of a virus or the intentions of a politician could have a huge impact by manipulating behavior in dangerous ways.
In addition to the three billion human accounts on social media, there are also millions of bots residing within.[i] Bots are created using a computer algorithm (a set of instructions used to complete a task) and work autonomously and repetitively. They can simulate human behavior on social media websites by interacting with other users and by sharing information and messages. Bots also possess artificial intelligence. They can learn certain response patterns and respond to different situations. Programmed to identify and target influential social media users, bots can spread fake news quickly throughout social networks.
According to a 2017 estimate, there were about 23 million bots on Twitter, 27 million bots on Instagram, and 140 million bots on Facebook. Altogether, that adds to one hundred and ninety million bots on just three social media platforms, more than half the population of the United States.[ii]
3 Reasons Why We Get Sucked in by Fake News
With our rampant rejection of boredom and almost constant consumption of screen content, we’ve gotten into the habit of greedily inhaling rather than thoughtfully chewing our news. We browse instead of reading, then impulsively jump to share. A recent study found that 59% of shared articles on social media are never even read, which means most social media users get their information based solely on a headline.[iii] Why are we so susceptible to this form of online behavior? Are we lazy with low attention spans, or could it be something else?
Fake news is carefully crafted to be widely appealing.
A recent study found that fake news is 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories and that a true story takes six times longer to reach 1,500 people than it takes for fake news to reach the same amount of people. Fake news is generally new and unusual information that is tested for shareability. Unlike truth, which you consume and it’s over, fake news is alive and constantly evolving.[iv]
We hear and see what we want to.
An echo chamber is a metaphor for a closed online space where beliefs are amplified and reinforced through repetition. With each contact with that information, the reader becomes more convinced that the content is factual and impactful.
Social media sites repetitively send us links to information based on our previous internet searches. This is called targeted advertising. It is designed to take us into a rabbit hole of single-minded desire. Not only does this sell us on ideas, belief systems, and facts, it can also get us to back politicians and influencers and ultimately spend our money. The act of unconsciously seeking out and remembering information that supports our views is called confirmation bias. Fake news feeds this bias.
Heuristics are human nature.
Heuristics are shortcuts our minds take to make quicker decisions. They allow us to function without having to think about every action we make. Humans are not designed to have an honest view of the world. We form our decisions based on a vague worldview supported by emotional confirmation. We search for facts that make us feel more confident and avoid or flatly reject those that don’t. Black-and-white thinking calm our anxiety and makes us feel like we have more control. Attending to more complicated nuance, which is typically more accurate, takes more cognitive effort and a more informed database to work from. Most don’t want to take the time to patiently and humbly build up that kind of expertise. Quick information that offers more successful shareability is a more attractive option for online communication.
3 Reasons Why We Believe It
British psychologist Karen Douglas found three criteria why someone would believe in conspiracy theories.
The Desire for Understanding and Certainty
It’s human nature to try to explain why things happen. Evolutionarily, those who were the best problem-solvers were more likely to survive. There is an adaptive advantage for those who ask questions and quickly find answers. Quickly produced answers may not be true, but instead, false beliefs can ease our anxiety and efficiently fit into our world view. Conspiracy theories are also false beliefs, and those who believe in them have a vested interest in keeping them. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting.
The Desire for Control and Security
We need to feel like we have control over our lives. For conspiracy theorists, this is especially true when the alternative to their belief is stressful. For instance, if global warming is true and temperatures are rising, we will have to change lifestyles which could be unpleasant. Instead of changing your way of living, you could listen to media personalities and others who assure you that global warming is a hoax so you can continue with your way of living. This is called motivated reasoning and is a strong component of belief in conspiracy theories.
The Desire to Maintain a Positive Self-Image
Research has shown that those who feel they are socially marginalized will be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. A positive self-image is fed from our successes in our relationships and accolades from bosses and those we admire. Chatting in online forums with those who have similar beliefs brings us community and, ultimately, feelings of self-worth. If one is particularly insecure, researching a conspiracy theory can give them a feeling that they hold exclusive knowledge and offers a sense of expertise and opportunities for adulation and leadership.[v]
Assess the characteristics of the article you are reading.
Is it an editorial or an opinion piece? Who is the author? Is the author credible? Have they specialized in a certain field or are they just a random guy with an unresearched opinion? Can you trust the information they offer? Do they cite their sources or is the article designed to impress instead of informing?
Check the ads.
Be wary of articles containing multiple pop-ups, advertisements of items not associated with the article, or highly provocative and sexual advertisements
Are the images copied from other sources or are they licensed for use by the author? Google Image Search is an easy tool to find published copies of the image.
Use fact-checking websites.
Favorites of GetKidsInternetSafe are Snopes, Factcheck.org, and PolitiFact.
Research opposing views.
Check out sources with viewpoints opposing the articles you read that differ from your own opinions. To defend a point of view, you must understand the other side.
As important as it is to protect yourself from fake news, it is equally important to help protect others from fake news. Make sure to check the authenticity of an article before posting it online. If Aunt Joyce posts something inaccurate, side message her and let her know that it is fake news and how you found that information so she can better use fact-checking in the future.
Thanks to CSUCI intern, Dylan Smithson for researching the ways fake news is affecting us and how to avoid being morons online. To view some valuable news clips of Dr. Bennett’s interviews about parenting and screen safety, check out her YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/DRTRACYBENNETT,
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
[i] Simon Kemp (2019) Digital trends 2019: Every single stat you need to know about the internet https://thenextweb.com/contributors/2019/01/30/digital-trends-2019-every-single-stat-you-need-to-know-about-the-internet/
[iii] Jayson DeMers (2019) 59 Percent Of You Will Share This Article Without Even Reading It https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2016/08/08/59-percent-of-you-will-share-this-article-without-even-reading-it/#646fecdb2a64
[iv] Kari Paul (2018) False news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true ones https://www.marketwatch.com/story/fake-news-spreads-more-quickly-on-twitter-than-real-news-2018-03-08
[v] David, L (2018) Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
Keywords: Internet, Conspiracy Theories, Fake News, Bots, AI, Confirmation Bias, Heuristics, Echo Chamber