How #fakenews about migrant caravan and terrorism fools so many people

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President Trump’s relationship with the media has been acrimonious from the moment he embarked on his campaign for president. Since then he has labeled news outlets that have criticized his administration “fake news.” Last year, he described CNN, NBC DIS, -0.85% ABC, CBS, -1.55%  and The New York Times as “the enemy of the American people.” Facebook, meanwhile, is struggling to stem the flow of erroneous memes and fake news.

Anger towards the media and those on the other then of the political spectrum appears to be reaching boiling point. On Wednesday, the New York headquarters of CNN were evacuated after a potential pipe bomb addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan was sent to CNN’s offices at the Time Warner Center. Trump told a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisc. hours later, “Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy itself.”

However, the president doubled down on his criticisms of the media, and said journalists also needed to take stock. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and often times false attacks and stories,” Trump said. For many people, it’s difficult to distinguish real news from fake news and opinion from fact, especially if the latter aligns with their own ideological beliefs.

With political tensions high ahead of the November midterm elections, and jobs and immigration a particularly emotive issue, fake news and fear easily spread. Ginni Thomas, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, shared fake news about the migrant caravan from Central America on Facebook FB, -3.70% (She posted a photo of a bloody altercation with police in Mexico City in 2012, falsely attributing it to members of the caravan.)

Before a man was arrested on Friday in connection to the pipe bombs sent to a dozen people, there were numerous false rumors spreading on the internet that the bombs were actually a left-wing conspiracy to drum up sympathy for the Democratic Party ahead of the midterm election on Nov. 16. Writer Ann Coulter said that bombs were a “liberal tactic.” Trump tweeted Friday that momentum at the polls had slowed after “this ‘Bomb’ stuff.”

But how can people distinguish between rumor and reality? Psychologists say people develop defense mechanisms to deal with an uncertain world early in life, but this also draws people to information that seems to confirm their own beliefs and worldview and ignore reports or opinion that contradicts their perceptions. This “confirmation bias” helps outlandish theories and reports gain traction on social media. And that, psychologists say, is where fake news comes in.

‘The brain is hard-wired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.’

Mark Whitmore, assistant professor at Kent State University

“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” said Mark Whitmore, assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University’s College of Business Administration. “In fact, one could say the brain is hard-wired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”

Whitmore presented a paper at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Philadelphia with his wife, Eve Whitmore, a developmental psychologist with Western Reserve Psychological Associates in Stow, Ohio. They said parents teach children to role play and when these kids reach adolescence they should have developed critical thinking skills that help them distinguish between what is true and false, especially when they read news on social media.

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However, many people effectively rationalize the irrational in order to avoid going against what values and ideas that were taught to them by their parents. “Children’s learning about make-believe and mastery becomes the basis for more complex forms of self-deception and illusion into adulthood,” Eve Whitmore said. When people are faced with absurd and conflicting messages, her husband added, “It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”

But there are ways to guard against this. “Developing a greater degree of skepticism in children, by encouraging them to ask why and to question, diminishes confirmation bias,” Mark Whitmore said. “All of these strategies have substantial research supporting their beneficial effects.” He said humor and satire helps reduce the anxiety associated with this “confirmation bias” and recommends people expose themselves to different viewpoints and avoid the social-media echo chamber.

Young people who do their own research and choose their own news sources rather than ‘elite-selected media’ are more likely to be more politically active.

Sam Scovill, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Arizona

They’re not wrong. There is little overlap in the news sources that people on social networks turn to and trust, according to research published last year by the Pew Research Center, and when discussing politics online or with friends, they are more likely to interact with like-minded individuals. Roughly half of Facebook FB, -3.70%  users (53%) and less than half (39%) of Twitter TWTR, +1.76%   users say that there is a mix of political views among the people in their networks.

In fact, young people who do their own research and choose their own news sources are more likely to be more politically active, according to Sam Scovill, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Arizona, who also presented research at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting earlier this month. Scovill said more politically active people do a deep dive beyond “elite-selected media,” more commonly known as mainstream network television, cable channels and newspapers.

In a survey of 2,920 adults, he said people who consumed “elite-selected news” on Facebook and Twitter were more likely to say they voted, but those who sought out their own media sources were more likely to participate in campaigning and political activism. Those who typically got their news from social media were did not have a significant impact on political activism, although those respondents said they were more likely to have “liked” a candidate on Facebook.

“News on social media or elite-selected news media are coming through the choices of others who decide what is important to post on Facebook or what is important to go on the front page of The New York Times,” Scovill said. But he said young people who spend time online get a bad rap and are actually using new forms of activism, “like signing petitions online or doing their own crowdsourcing online and raising funds for things that matter to them, in ways that older generations might not be.”

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