The information highway is in serious need of traffic signals, according to a new analysis of the fake news problem by a team of psychology researchers.
In the age of instant information via the internet, fake news and false information pose a dangerous threat to society that requires a concerted response involving government, educators, social media businesses, professional journalists and consumers, the researchers conclude.
“Fake news is a bigger problem than we thought, and we can’t rely on simple answers,” says Northern Illinois University professor Anne Britt, an expert in cognitive and instructional psychology. Britt is lead author of the analysis, published earlier this month in the journal, Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Britt says the way human memory is wired, our own biases in selecting and interpreting information, and the sheer volume of online misinformation, make us all susceptible to being duped. “Now more than ever, people need to become aware of their own cognitive biases and how to avoid being exploited because of them,” Britt says.
She and her co-authors cite a wide body of research literature that helps explain how and why the glut of online information, often spread rapidly via social media, poses challenges for the human thought process.
Past research has shown:
- Human interpretation of information is guided, not by objectivity, but by personal goals and prior beliefs.
- Interpreted memories are susceptible to change, depending on the situation.
- People are more likely to search for belief-consistent information.
- People are more likely to accept belief-consistent information without serious scrutiny.
- Simply repeating information can increase confidence in its perceived truth.
- Information we later learn was incorrect remains in memory and can continue to affect us.
In the pre-internet era, the public relied on gatekeepers, such as highly trained librarians, publishers and journalists.
But nowadays even the source of online information can be veiled or intentionally deceptive, the authors note, adding that the problem is exacerbated by the very nature of social media. By design, it encourages users to seek out and share info with like-minded thinkers, as opposed to exposing themselves to different perspectives.
The analysis further notes that the spread of false information can have dire consequences. The authors point to the example of the “pizzagate conspiracy” that cropped up online prior to the November 2016 election. It falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton was the head of a sex-trafficking ring that was using a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., to hold children captive. In December of that year, an assailant on a self-appointed mission to save the children entered the restaurant and fired an assault rifle before being arrested.
“Pizzagate and similar events show the unintended consequences of social media,” said NIU psychology professor Keith Millis, who studies comprehension and memory. Millis is a co-author on the analysis along with Dylan Blaum, an NIU graduate student in psychology, and Jean-François Rouet, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research at the University of Poitiers, France.
“Importantly, our analysis shows that basic research in the social and behavioral sciences can help to explain why these events occur,” Millis says. “Knowing why something occurs is a huge step in changing behavior.”
The scientists say accurate evaluation requires readers to set and monitor accuracy as a goal, employ strategies to achieve that goal and value the time and effort-consuming systematic evaluation.
“Self-monitoring for accuracy is very time consuming and requires some work,” Britt says. “Even the most skilled person isn’t going to do that all the time because we’re constantly getting tidbits of information. It just takes too much effort to track everything down.”
Consequently, the authors underscore the need for a concerted interdisciplinary effort involving educators, researchers, trained journalists, social media companies and the government. Their recommendations:
- Public and in-school awareness campaigns involving educators, journalists and government agencies are needed to teach consumers how memory and comprehension processes work, how personal biases can be manipulated and how to evaluate information for accuracy.
- Political and social media business leaders need to adopt regulations and/or guidelines to both inform the public about their susceptibility to cognitive biases and, wherever possible, prohibit use of information channels for fraudulent commercial and other anti-social purposes.
- Funding agencies need to support rigorous interdisciplinary research on argumentation and persuasion to help identify interventions for different populations of readers in K-12 and beyond.
“Our country guarantees free speech, but there are limits to free speech,” Britt says. “Just like the automobile created a need for traffic lights and speed limits, the internet calls for some sort of traffic signals or guidelines.
“I know there are people who hold to the ideology that information should be unfiltered,” she adds. “But we can’t handle volumes and volumes of unfiltered information. We can’t work that hard all the time to make sure we’re getting the truth.”