10 Cognitive Biases Explain Why We Fall For Fake News
In his excellent analysis, Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman showed that the top 20 fake news stories generated more clicks than the top 20 stories from every major publication combined during the 2016 election cycle. And not only do we click on fake news stories, but we believe them 75% of the time. How is this possible in an age when we have instant access to the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets?
Fake News Isn’t New
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” — President Lyndon Johnson
We fall for incendiary fake news because human beings have always fallen for it. According to presidential historian Joseph Cummins, it’s a misconception political smear campaigns are getting dirtier. In 1842, Martin Van Buren’s opponent spread the rumor that he dressed up in women’s clothing. In the 2000 Republican primaries, George W. Bush’s campaign beat John McCain by spreading a malicious rumor about McCain’s non-existent bi-racial lovechild. Just look at how his aide Karl Rove described his strategy to Ron Suskind from the New York Times:
[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The difference in 2016 is not that fake news exists, it’s that fake news scales at internet speed + scale without being filtered by the establishment media. It spreads fast because everything — from Uber to Pokémon Go — spreads fast these days. This creates a viscous cycle where the traditional media needs to spread fake news in order to stay relevant. Our collective id has replaced the news editor in a never ending battle for clicks. This technological discontinuity has completely changed the game and has made it easier for savvy political operatives like Karl Rove and Steve Bannon to weaponize our irrationality.
The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by any new technology — Professor Marshall McLuhan (1964)
10 Cognitive Biases that Explain Why We Fall for Fake News
Despite the incredible changes of the last 75 years, it should tell us something that the most popular book on human relations, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, was written in 1937. Human nature is the one constant throughout history.
As Psychologist Dan Ariely puts it we human beings are “predictably irrational.” Whatever solutions we come up with to the fake news problem must account for our own cognitive limitations in a new media environment. Walter Cronkite isn’t walking through that door.
Cognitive biases are systematic errors in judgment that human beings consistently make. Here are 10 that help explain why we will never stop falling for fake news:
- Bias blind spot — the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases. (This is why nobody thinks they’re biased)
- Third-person effect- Belief that mass communicated media messages have a greater effect on others than on themselves. (This is why propaganda is so effective. It doesn’t affect me!)
- Authority bias — The tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion. (This is why Trump’s supporters believe everything he says no matter what)
- Declinism - The belief that a society or institution is tending towards decline. Particularly, it is the predisposition to view the past favorably and future negatively. (This is why ‘Make America Great Again’ was such an effective message)
- Confirmation bias — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. (This is why people click on fake news that reinforces their views)
- Bandwagon effect — The tendency to believe things because many other people believe the same. (This is why people believe fake news shared by their friends)
- Availability cascade — A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse. (This is why fake news become true. E.g. Hillary is a murderer)
- Continued influence effect — The tendency to believe previously learned misinformation even after it has been corrected. (This is why Hillary’s ‘indictment’ had such a big effect even after Comey dropped charges)
- Hostile media effect — the tendency to perceive news coverage as biased against your position on an issue. (This is why millions of Trump voters don’t trust the mainstream media)
- Backfire effect — The urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice. (This is why the media ganging up on Trump completely backfired)