“Hm, that can’t be right!” was your first thought upon seeing your friend’s Facebook post. She shared a photo of a political figure, complete with a superimposed quote. “Robbing a bank is okay, as long as the bank robbers don’t shoot the people inside the bank.”
Right off the bat, you’re absolutely sure that this politician never said anything like that. One, there’s an extremely slim chance that a sane adult (especially someone whose job security depends on positive public opinion) would blatantly say anything that even hints at condoning criminal behavior. Two, you know that this alleged quote runs contrary to the person’s often carefully worded, politically correct messaging, sincerity notwithstanding. You find it utterly baffling that apparently, none of these ideas — which took only about 5 seconds to form in your head — occurred to your friend. As you prepare to debunk this blatantly fake news, you notice other posts on your feed:
“Undeniable Proof that Earth Is Flat – WATCH THIS VIDEO!”
“Climate Change Isn’t Real: Scientists Have Been Lying For Years!”
“Miracle plant cure for all types of cancer: Here’s what big pharma doesn’t want you to know!”
“VIDEO: Armando Lite was the TRUE inventor of the armalite – #PinoyPride!”
With an audible sigh, you stop typing. Dejected and disappointed in your friends, you start to wonder. Has everyone completely lost their minds? Why is everyone on my feed believing and sharing fake news?
Fake news: The real story
Think distinguishing fake news from fact is all a matter of using your common sense? Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be that simple.
In March 2018, the journal Science published results of an extensive study on fake news conducted by researchers from the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT). In this massive study — said to be the first of its kind about the topic, in terms of scope and depth — the authors looked at 12 years’ worth of Twitter stories. After applying the appropriate filters, they managed to whittle that number down to 126,000 “fake news” stories. Their findings revealed that a fake news story was 70% more likely to earn a retweet than actual, verified news. This suggests that people have a greater tendency to share fake news than legitimate stories. Based on their metrics, fake news had a much wider reach, a much quicker rate of spreading, and a higher likelihood of penetrating the deepest circles within the platform.
Another paper, published a year before the previously mentioned study, identified a few characteristics that most successful fake news items share. Surprisingly, one of them is that fake news tends to be written more like satire articles than actual news. This contradicts the notion that fake news articles succeed because they seem real. Rather, they achieve their purpose by largely leaving it to the reader to verify whether they are legitimate or not. In other words, instead of presenting strong arguments grounded in fact, fake news articles bank on readers not doing their due diligence. In addition, fake news headlines tend to dump a ton of information all at once. This is likely to capitalize on the tendency of some users to just stop at titles instead of reading articles in full.
Fool me once, fool me twice – sold!
A fairly recent Facebook stunt by McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS) showed why fake news videos go viral. The video features a cancer “miracle cure,” complete with upbeat music, random images, and fake sources. At the 39-second mark, it exposes itself by outright revealing its true purpose. To date, the video has garnered 16,000 reactions and over 85,000 shares.
There are so many videos about how to cure cancer naturally…Ours has a bit of a different spin.
A big thank you to…
A large-scale online survey of 3,015 US adults conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News revealed that 3 out of 4 times, fake news headlines successfully fool online readers. Additional findings from the 2016 survey also showed that most news consumers were not only incapable of determining the truthfulness of headlines sans proper context, but also more likely to believe fake news stories that didn’t match their existing ideological biases. Simply put, the more ridiculous the story, the more likely it seemed that they would believe it.
The certainty principle
Now, doesn’t it make you wonder why fake news believers don’t do their own research?
According to new findings from the University of California in Berkeley, it’s not evidence that makes people believe fake news. Rather, it’s the positive or negative feedback they get about their opinions that end up shaping their beliefs. “If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” according to Louis Marti, a Ph.D. student in psychology and the study’s lead author.
The researchers asked over 500 adults to identify a make-believe object called a “Daxxy” from 24 colored shapes on a computer screen. Instead of providing qualifiers, the authors made the participants choose based on their gut feel. After each guess, they received feedback on whether they had guessed correctly or not, and were also made to report on how certain they were about their answer.
The results showed that instead of taking whatever information they learned to make correct guesses, the participants based their certainty on the feedback they got from their last four or five guesses. “What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” shared Marti.
So, what’s news?
Social media platforms are now enforcing stricter measures to combat the spread of fake news. As individual users, though, we should be more discerning and critical of what we read online, regardless of whether or not they are in accordance with our own biases and opinions. Despite whatever expectations we may have of our friends, they’re not infallible — and neither are we.
Oh, by the way — have you heard? Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, a pair of YouTubers actually DID manage to prove that Earth is flat. Here, check it out.
Author: Mikael Angelo Francisco
Bitten by the science writing bug, Mikael has years of writing and editorial experience under his belt. As the editor-in-chief of FlipScience, Mikael has sworn to help make science more fun and interesting for geeky readers and casual audiences alike.