Conspiracy theories: Part II - the lingering influence of fake news

A few weeks ago I wrote about the conspiracy theorists, those who make causal connections out of correlations. The research suggests that they are motivated to do this by the enhancement in their social standing amongst others in the conspiracy community when they find previously unknown links to ‘support’ a particular conspiracy theory.  There are though many others who don’t engage in this sort of focussed behaviour but who, nonetheless, believe things which have been shown to be untrue.  Politicians rely on their ability to persuade such people in order to gain power.

The brand leaders for untruth amongst politicians used to be the likes of Hitler or Mussolini but, these days, we have Mr Trump. It used to be 'You're fired', but ‘Fake news” is now Donald Trump’s favourite catchphrase. Since the election in 2016, it has appeared in some 180 tweets by the President, denouncing everything from accusations of sexual assault against him to the Russian collusion investigation, to reports that he watches up to eight hours of television a day.

Obviously Trump uses “fake news” as a rhetorical device to discredit stories he doesn’t like. And so, ironically, he falsely accuses truth of being false. It is clear that these assertions, themselves ‘fake news’, and the many other sources of ‘real’ fake news are a serious problem, causing a greater polarisation amongst voters and an unwillingness to believe anything reported by journalists working for the ‘wrong’ news organisation.

An analysis by the internet media company Buzzfeed revealed that during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the 20 most popular false election stories generated around 1.3 million more Facebook hits - shares, reactions, and comments - than did the 20 most popular legitimate stories. The most popular fake story was “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” It is not, though the fact that people read and react to such nonsense, but that they continue to believe it and act on it even when it is shown to be false.

So what drives a person to cling to a piece of incorrect information, even after it has been definitively disproved? One possible answer is tribalism. If a piece of information reflects badly on the other side - say, the suggestion by Trump that an American talk show host Joe Scarborough killed a young woman 20 or so years ago - his supporters, his tribe, have an emotional incentive to keep believing it, even when it is patently false. But how this overcomes our much vaunted rationality is not entirely obvious.

Perhaps their emotions mean that they’re not inclined to or able to listen to the opposing viewpoint very carefully. But in fact researchers have found that opposing tribes on Twitter are actually very aware of each other's arguments. What they do, however, is misrepresent them, misquote them or take them out of context, so that they appear to be wrong. So then we are still left scratching our heads as to what the precise explanation might be for such irrational behaviour. Perhaps it's simply a reluctance to accept that you’re someone who can be wrong – but would this be a strong factor even when you’re anonymous and could simply withdraw from the fray?

As we have seen, the idea of self image was relevant in a study of people’s decisions to keep or hand in a purse, with money in it and the owner's address, which they had ‘found’. Mainly they handed it in, because they would otherwise have to see themselves as dishonest. Their self-image as honest people created a cognitive dissonance at the prospect of acting dishonestly which, in turn, prevented them from doing so.

And so why is it that people will misrepresent the truth? I would imagine that most people think of themselves as being honest and so not as someone who would deliberately mislead others. To change that self-image just to take a particular side in an argument, must for most people then surely be very unlikely.  One’s desire to see oneself as honest must at least be a substantial counterweight to other emotions. There must then be some other explanation for at least a large percentage of those who do exhibit such irrational behaviour. And there is.

Research published in 2017 by psychologists from Ghent University has shown there to be what looks like a simple explanation. It points to a widespread phenomenon that leaves a person particularly vulnerable to misinformation - one that can be found among people of all races, nationalities, and political parties. It is being not very bright or, in the case of Trump supporters, I suppose we can say that it's the effect of stupidity.  The "lingering influence" of fake news "is dependent on an individual's level of cognitive ability," the researchers tell us. They reported that people with greater cognitive skills can and do make corrections when new, better information supersedes a mistaken early report.  Those whose reasoning, understanding, and problem-solving abilities are less advanced have trouble making that switch.

Their study featured 390 adults recruited online. Half of them read a description of a young woman named Nathalie, a married nurse who worked in a hospital. They filled in a questionnaire giving their impressions of her qualities such as warmth, trustworthiness, and sincerity.

The other half read a lengthier version of the mini-biography. It said that Nathalie was caught stealing drugs from the hospital, which she then sold in order to pay for designer clothes.

They then filled out the same questionnaire. Afterwards, they "saw an explicit message on their screen stating that the information regarding the stealing and dealing of drugs was not true." They then read an amended version of the description, and again answered the same questions about the nurse.

All participants also filled out questionnaires designed to identify two psychological traits identified with a reluctance to change one's mind - a tendency to authoritarianism and a lack of comfort with cognitive dissonance (i.e. find it difficult to accept that life isn’t simple). They also took a vocabulary test used as a proxy of cognitive ability or intelligence. In each round, they were presented with a word, and then asked which of five additional words was closest in meaning to the first.

The researchers reported that even after getting the corrected information, "the false information effects never completely wore off in individuals with lower levels of cognitive ability." 

In contrast, evaluations given by people with high levels of cognitive ability were not significantly different from those given by people in the control group. They made "appropriate attitude adjustments." And these differences persisted even after the researchers factored in any tendency to hold authoritarian beliefs or have a dislike of uncertainty. That strongly suggests they were driven by cognitive ability - or the lack thereof.

Which means that "alternative facts" can and do linger among a significant subset of the population. What we don’t know from the study is where the line is drawn – after all, by definition half the population is less intelligent than even the average.  And from my experience of life, I would guess that even the average is not a good starting place.

That should of course provide a strong incentive to news organizations to get it right the first time. Unfortunately, it also gives unscrupulous politicians, and Fox News, a strong incentive to lie. They know - because they have seen it work and so profited from it - that lying will convince a section of the population that what they are saying is true - an impression that will never go away.  What Mr Trump has falsely asserted is true will last for many years, in fact during the whole lifetimes of those who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Paul Buckingham

1 June 2020

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