Three Reasons Why We Believe Lies (and the Fake News They Pollute)

I lied to my wife last night.

After movies with a friend, I told her I had stayed true to our no-sugar pact rather than admit to the M&Ms I had guiltily enjoyed.

Guilt and enjoyment, bedfellows in the act of lying.

A little lie. A white lie. That’s what people do, all the time, for all sorts of reasons. To make ourselves look good. To protect others from being hurt.

Or for bigger, more selfish reasons like making money, gaining an advantage or masking our own less-than-noble behavior.

In this case, my wife believed me because a) she wanted to, b) it fit her view of me and c) she’s accustomed to believing me.

We’ll return shortly to those three factors in a larger context.

We learn over the course of our lives the signals to watch for, the questions to ask, the scepticism to bring to the situation to judge for ourselves what’s true and what isn’t, to decide where on the lying scale, if you will, a certain person or situation belongs (from 0 – “never lie” – to 10 – “always lie”), and then to respond accordingly.

We expect to get smarter and wiser as we grow older and amass experience of dealing particularly with liars who register on the upper end of that scale.

What happens, though, when lies grow into something more insidious?

When they evolve into the currency for public policy and decision-making?

When they become the foundation on which politicians run for office or exercise power when they win?

That can happen when people stop caring that they’re being lied to. And that’s where we are now, one reason why this moment is so anxiety-inducing to so many people whatever their political affiliation and country of origin or residence.

I conceived VitalBriefing in 2011 because businesspeople I respected were complaining of two problems: a) They couldn’t swim through the information tsunami to find what mattered and b) they lacked the tools to separate fact from fiction.

Fact versus Fiction in a World of Fake News

These days, I’m thinking a lot about that second issue. Separating fact from fiction, real from unreal masquerading as real, genuine from the disingenuous is not only core to the success of my company. It’s also at the center of our global future.

In short, facts matter. Lies damage.

One of the principal drivers of my work and that of my colleagues over many decades of my career as a journalist covering the world at all levels — local, national, foreign and global — has been to ferret out the facts in any given situation and to assemble them into stories that could be counted on as much as humanly possible to present an objective version of the truth.

In one way or another, facts lie at the heart of every story in every legitimate newspaper, magazine and news operation. It’s what we strive for as journalists – that a particular story will have a particular impact because of the facts beating at its center.

And therein lies the question I’m grappling with: What does it mean when “alternative facts” – a euphemism for lies first posed by Donald Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway – become legitimate currency, and vast numbers of people are willing to make important decisions based on lies they know are lies?

In speeches, I’ve often used a clip of President Obama declaring his faith that “the American people, they’ve got good judgement. They’ve got good instincts. As long as they get good information.”

I wanted to believe him. I no longer do. Good information is no longer enough.

Minding the Facts

Despite the ongoing collapse of traditional, mainstream news media due to changing economics and the continuing loss of outlets and jobs for trained, professional journalists, editors, fact-checkers and photographers, there still are many legitimate sources of fact-based reporting and responsible journalism.

Yet, think about what we saw with the appalling outcome of the impeachment trial of President Trump in the US Senate: All but one Republican senator backing the multiple, documented lies of the president and those closest to him.

Ultimately, facts don’t carry weight these days.

“Think about what is now required for a Republican politician to be considered a party member in good standing. He or she must pledge allegiance to policy doctrines that are demonstrably false; he or she must, in effect, reject the very idea of paying attention to evidence.”

Paul Krugman, The New York Times

That quote from Nobel prizewinning economist Paul Krugman truly worries me.

Recent research on this subject focus on three explanations, which can be linked, as to why people are willing to ignore facts in their process of making judgements.

#1: Motivated Reasoning

The first is “motivated reasoning,” identified by social scientists as selectively choosing evidence to fit into the preferred conclusion.

In an article for Fast Company, Adrian Bardon, author of The Truth about Denial, says “this very human tendency applies to all kinds of facts about the physical world, economic history and current events.”

Bardon says motivated reasoning explains why a person’s “political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicised issue.”

#2: Confirmation Bias

That characteristic leads to the second factor: “confirmation bias,” by which people disregard information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs while latching on to that which reinforces what they already believe.

In their book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his daughter, public health expert Sara Gorman, identify a physiological aspect to this tendency which seems, on the surface, to be self-destructive.

“It feels good to ‘stick’ to our guns’ even if we are wrong,”

Jack and Sara Gorman

They point to research indicating there’s a burst of dopamine that triggers genuine pleasure when people absorb information that buttresses their existing views.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer prizewinning staff writer for The New Yorker, calls confirmation bias “among the best catalogued…of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified.”

She cites researchers who argue that this tendency actually works against our interests; that it’s a human “design flaw” that could harm us by leading people to disregard danger or proof of threats.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber liken confirmation bias to a mouse setting out to prove its conviction there are no cats around…and ending up as dinner. As such, humans logically should have evolved to reject this bias.

They attack the issue in The Enigma of Reason, further honing confirmation bias to “myside bias.” They argue that humans don’t believe ‘just anything.’ We’re good at identifying flaws in others’ arguments, but not our own.

They say humans evolved to win arguments rather than to show logical consistency in their reasoning which, they say, is why reason seems to lose out in the world of fake news, Twitter, Facebook and fabricated research.

“This is one of the many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up,” they write.

In fact, confirmation bias is also part of the explanation of the power of fake news, smack in the middle of a “clickbait culture” where the most provocative headline draws audience into stories that will reinforce their existing views based on any material that supports them, actual facts be damned.

#3: Illusory Truth Effect

The third explanation is called the “illusory truth effect,” the notion first raised in 1977 that we all hold multiple beliefs that simply aren’t true, a conclusion that has been confirmed in many experiments since then — including a 2012 study concluding that “repeating false claims will not only increase their believability but may also result in source monitoring errors.”

In a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Gordan Pennycook of the University of Regina, Tyrone Cannon of Yale and David G. Rand of MIT find that “fluency via prior exposure” makes a significant difference:

“Using actual fake news headlines presented as they were seen on Facebook, we show that even a single exposure increases subsequent perceptions of accuracy, both within the same session and after a week.”

Journal of Experimental Psychology

But here’s the real bottom line on that one: “Although extreme implausibility is a boundary condition of the illusory truth effect, only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy.”

In other words, the more times you read, hear or watch a story, the more you believe it’s true. 

What it all means for fake news

Combine these three factors and you land at a single conclusion:

If it could be true and it fits your existing belief, the more you hear it, the more you’ll believe it (and you’ll feel good spreading it to others who think like you).

And it offers one explanation for how lies and false information can be recast as “news” – real fake news – by humans who then can use all the tools at their fingertips, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to bots to any social media platform in these days of everyone’s-a-publisher to broadcast these targeted “stories” to hundreds of millions of people who are likely to believe them.

As we well know by now, the single technological factor that bears the most blame for the “weaponization of content” is indeed social media and the platforms that enable global transmission of any content, including unverified, unchecked and unreliable.

Donald Trump himself has mused that without social media – specifically Twitter – he likely would not be occupying the Oval Office.

Just ask those Russian disinformation specialists who during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made:

  • 61,500 phony Facebook posts that reached some 126 million Americans (half the number of eligible voters)
  • 116,000 Instagram posts
  • 10.4 million tweets

All appeared as if they were posted by genuine users. (And that’s just a percentage of the false social media related to the election).

So, start adding up the damage since the election and what was a minor brushfire a few years ago is now a major conflagration of post-fact-based stories that propel badly-founded decisions.

Disregarding overwhelming evidence to the contrary, substantial numbers of people believe that crime in America has worsened since 2008, childhood vaccinations are dangerous and that owning a handgun makes one safer.

“The information we consume is like the food we eat. If it’s junk, our thinking will reflect that.”

Farnam Street

In fact, a group of MIT researchers documented in a 2018 study published in Science, that false news spread further and faster on social media.

Indeed, they found that the truth took six times as long to get to 1,500 people as a falsehood – and that fake news stories were 70% more likely than actual, true stories to be retweeted.

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they concluded.

But Jack and Sara Gorman, bent on trying to correct the way we misinform ourselves, run up against this brick wall: Even when people are given accurate information, they won’t necessarily change their minds. Instead, they discard information that doesn’t fit their belief system.

“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth. Truth is no longer dictated by authorities but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine

In 2017, BBC Future Now assembled 50 experts for a discussion of the 21st century’s greatest challenges. Many of the experts identified the breakdown of trusted information sources among them.

“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” said Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

In this world of information pollution, it becomes a tremendous challenge to tease out the real from the fake. The more we take in, the harder it is to evaluate its value.

As Greg Swanson, CEO of digital media consultancy ITZ Media puts it, “the sorting of reliable versus fake news requires a trusted referee.”

What you can do

Slammed by news from all directions, there are steps you can take to reduce and maybe even eliminate the fake news that pollutes your personal environment:

  • Consume less.
  • Be very selective in the news you consume.
  • Check out the sources you choose. Do they adhere to genuine journalistic practices? If they have biases, are they clearly stated and presented? Do they present multiple sides to the story, but not necessarily giving them all equal weight? Are their conclusions based on responsible reporting?
  • Be wary of sites that don’t clearly present the sources of their revenue.
  • Avoid sources displayed in your social media feeds that you can’t verify and/or lack legitimate expertise in the subject matter.
  • Don’t rely solely on breaking news. Seek out more in-depth stories and analyses to inform your opinions and decisions.

As for me, I’ve learned my lesson about lying. I promised my wife that next time, I’ll tell her the truth about those M&Ms.

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