Science Explains Fake News
Norwich panelists say it's all in your head.
Last week the Norwich Public Library assembled a team of researchers from Dartmouth to explain to a standing-room audience the scientific reason for why people believe fake news. Rick Lopez and Seth Frey from the Psychological and Brain Sciences department were joined by political scientist D. J. Flynn to explain how and why fake news gets into your head, and why it is so difficult to change someone's opinion.
In short, we're hard-wired to accept fake news. It is a matter of survival.
"The brain likes to take short cuts," said Lopez. "The modern brain is inundated with information and has limited capacity for multi-tasking."
The short cut, explained Frey, is something called cognitive bias. The human brain has to make decisions with incomplete information "otherwise you'd never move after stopping for a red light," he joked.
Cognitive bias is the scientific explanation for why humans are inclined to process information incorrectly. It is common for a cognitive bias to reinforce something you already believe—even if it is wrong. When presented with an overwhelming amount of data, you'll notice the information you agree with and ignore contrary data. Belief in the science of climate change is but one example.
Google the words "Trump" and "immigration" and Fox News and MSNBC viewers will probably click on different links. (Google may also be indulging your bias by displaying links based on your past viewing history. But that is another story.)
Another form of bias, a bias blindspot so to speak, is the assumption that others are susceptible to bias and you are not. Studies have shown that bias is bipartisan.
The information tsunami of the modern era processed by brains fine-tuned for a different era has contributed to the fractured political landscape of 2017. Though fake news has been around as long as there has been news, what's different following the election of Donald Trump is the variety of fake news.
"Fake news used to be easy to spot," says Flynn, as he shows the front page of a decades-old supermarket tabloid. Today, web sites mimic legitimate organizations.
But there is some good news that's real. Studies have shown that the rise in political fact-checking and the uptick in "watchdog" journalism counterbalance the fake news trend.
What Can You Do About Fake News and Cognitive Bias?
You can't avoid bias, say brain scientists. You can, however, be aware of this bias and seek out news sources that you disagree with. You can also learn how to fact-check, spot a fake news site and load fake news browser plugins such as "BS Detector." The Norwich Public Library prepared this instructional cheat sheet.