Every day, millions of Americans argue over their version of facts and fake news. One person’s social media post on undocumented aliens committing crimes sparks a salvo of competing facts sprinkled with insults about the other’s knowledge of the situation. I’ll see your misinformation and raise you my alternative facts. It shows the challenge of thwarting fake news. It also reveals a key psychological insight that allows fake news and echo chambers to thrive: we think it’s a problem for other people and not ourselves.
Two-thirds of Americans think they can spot fake news better than the average person, according to a new global study by Ipsos. They also think that less than a third of their countrymen can. While most Americans say they’ve seen stories where news organizations lied, just under half say they’ve been duped by a fake story. These are the some of the latest findings about people’s misperceptions on social realities called The Perils of Perception.
Emotion amplifies distortion
A key factor that drives people’s misperceptions about facts and realities comes down to emotion, says Bobby Duffy, managing director of public affairs for Ipsos Mori. His new book, “The Perils of Perception – Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything,” touches on “fake news” and myriad other topics.
“We’re not talking about ignorance or lack of education here,” he says. “We’re talking about positively held misperceptions. The reality is we overestimate what we worry about.” For example, he says, Americans think 33 percent of their population are immigrants when the reality is 14 percent.
The problem, or peril if you will, is that people hold strong opinions and make purchasing, voting and other key decisions based on those opinions – whether or not they have the “correct” facts.
One of the strongest underlying factors contributing to these misperceptions is confirmation bias, says Duffy. This is where we look for information that confirms our already-held views and ignores those that contradict them. “It’s what we do as humans,” he says.
It also plays a big role in social media, which can perpetuate the filter bubbles. “Social communications are based on those biases where we can filter our world as much as we like now by choosing who we follow and friend and create our own little realities,” he says. Algorithms do the rest, serving up more things people like and agree with and less of what they disagree with.
More than any other population surveyed, 77 percent of Americans believe that others live in a filter bubble. Just a third of Americans agree they live in a bubble themselves.
Fake news or spin?
At the same time, people’s definition of fake news is evolving. In the study, people most commonly use the traditional definition as stories where facts are wrong. But more than half see it as stories where politicians or news outlets cherry pick facts to support their argument. Half of Americans see fake news as a weapon that media or politicians use to discredit facts they disagree with, something the current administration is widely known to use. Essentially, “fake news” has evolved to be closer to what we used to just call propaganda.
How do we defend against that weapon? Fact-checking firms like PolitiFact are one line of defense. But “we need to impart the skills so people can become their own fact-checkers,” says Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact.
He likens fake news to a public health crisis where government, businesses and journalists could work together to block the deliberate spread of misinformation online like they warned people to avoid tainted romaine lettuce. “This is a long-term solution to make sure we realize the actual problem is not just to be solved by one set of people,” he says.