Given the latest developments in politics in the Western world, the phenomenon of "fake news" has garnered more and more interest.
A major study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge analyzed the information on Twitter to see what gains more traction: truth or falsehood?
The researchers examined 126,000 contested news stories that 3 million users tweeted over the course of a decade, and they found that "fake news" reaches a lot more people and spreads a lot faster than accurate information.
Importantly, the predominance of fake news makes people distrust news outlets, and many report that they don't know how to distinguish truth from falsehood.
An international survey published earlier this year found that 7 in 10 people fear that fake news is being used as "a weapon," and over 60 percent of the respondents don't feel confident that they can tell the difference between fake news and facts.
What makes people vulnerable to fake news in the first place? Are there any strategies we can develop to protect ourselves from falsehood?
New research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA), held San Francisco, CA, explains the mechanisms behind the appeal of fake news.
The findings have also been published in the journal Science.
The brain is hardwired for fake news
Mark Whitmore, Ph.D. — an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University in Ohio — who presented at APA's convention this year, points to the so-called confirmation bias as the main reason behind the appeal of fake news.
The confirmation bias refers to people's tendency to accept information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and to ignore information that challenges them.
"At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual's existing views and beliefs," explains Whitmore.
"In fact," he explains, "one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember, or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs."
Eve Whitmore, Ph.D. — a developmental psychologist at Western Reserve Psychological Associates in Stow, OH — explains that this bias is formed in early life, as a child learns to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
During this critical time, parents encourage children to make believe because pretend games help the young cope with reality and assimilate social norms. However, the downside is that children learn that fantasy is sometimes acceptable.
As children grow into adolescents, the researchers explain, they develop their own critical thinking skills and start to question their parents or other authority figures. However, this can often lead to conflicts and anxieties that are uncomfortable on a psychological level.
This is where biased rationalizations come in. To avoid conflict and anxiety, people develop coping mechanisms such as the confirmation bias; since challenging false beliefs might cause conflict, adolescents learn to rationalize and accept the falsehoods instead.
Humor can protect against fake news
One way to reduce the appeal of fake news is to reduce the anxiety that makes confirmation bias an easy way out.
"One positive defense strategy is humor," says Mark Whitmore. "Watching late-night comedy or political satire, while not actually altering or changing the source of the stressor, can help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with it."
"Another is sublimation, where you channel your negative feelings into something positive, such as running for office, marching in a protest, or volunteering for a social cause."
Making a conscious effort to listen to other viewpoints can help moderate opinions and make them less extreme, he adds.
Finally, they stress the importance of an early development of critical thinking skills. "Developing a greater degree of skepticism in children, by encouraging them to ask why and to question, diminishes confirmation bias."