Would you believe that there is an entire civilization on the moon?
In 1835, people certainly did when the New York Sun ran a series of reports describing goats that behaved like kittens, tailless beavers, and winged bat-like humanoid creatures, among others, on the moon — all discoveries supposedly made with an advanced telescope. These six articles allowed the Sun to establish itself as one of the leading and, crucially, most profitable newspapers of its time.
Nearly two centuries later, the problem of fake news has taken on a newer and more insidious form. It is spreading much faster and further than the truth, delivered to us and our loved ones at every minute of every day.
It’s become more worrying than terrorism, racism, and climate change. And though many of us would like to think we’re smarter than peddlers of disinformation, the fact remains that fake news has managed to affect our politics, health, and everyday decisions — often, without us even knowing it.
Researchers across the globe have been doing their best to uncover what exactly it is about fake news that is so compelling for us to believe and share. As it turns out, it’s not just about the contents of the fake news articles themselves. It’s also about us as readers and the information ecosystem around us.
The Power of a Good Bad Story
Storytelling is part of what makes us human. It allows us to make sense of the world, share our viewpoints with others, and create emotional connections. But in today’s information war, misinformation and disinformation thrive on particularly riveting stories, or those that blend fact and fiction and manage to push the right emotional buttons.
Blending Fact and Fiction
Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a person from this century who’d still believe that there are bat-like aliens living on the moon, it’s much, much easier to meet someone who thinks the earth is flat. In fact, flat-earthers have their own international conference, merchandise, and celebrities, with roughly one in six Americans doubting that the earth is round.
Like the yellow journalism of the New York Sun and its contemporaries, today’s fake news articles are designed to value sensationalist fiction over fact. But the secret to their success is that they also add just a hint of fact — or what one might perceive as fact — to strengthen the fiction.
For example, proponents of the flat Earth theory point to a simple, everyday observation: The Earth, to us, looks and feels flat. From here, throw in a potent idea that can urge your audience down the road that this observation presents, such as: We have been lied to by NASA and the government in a “round Earth conspiracy.”
Pushing the Right Buttons
Narratives that make us feel seen and draw out the right types of emotions have the power to trump fact and sound research.
MIT scientists have found that part of the allure of fake news is how they are designed to produce feelings of fear, disgust, shock, and amazement, which can urge us to react and share them on social media. In contrast, actual news tends to produce less compelling emotions, like sadness and joy.
For example, being told that you’ve been lied to this entire time — by school books, your parents, and the government — about something as basic as the shape of the earth can make anyone feel betrayed and shocked. Add in the amazement over the many pseudo-scientific arguments, and pride over a community that has survived condescending insults regularly thrown at them, and you can begin to see why flat earthers tend to stick (and believe) together.
More Than a Few Psychological Traps
Other than the fake news stories themselves, psychologists and other social scientists have also explored our own tendencies as humans, and how these play a role in the spread of fake news.
We Like to Be Right
One psychological phenomenon often highlighted in disinformation discourse is confirmation bias. This is our tendency to look for, interpret, prefer, and recall information that agrees with our pre-existing beliefs.
We tend to believe fake news that reinforces what we already believe to be true, and ignore or mistrust articles that tell us we’re wrong. This makes it more likely for us to share fake news articles on our feeds — restarting the process for other people in our network.
We Believe Our Friends
Another reason we’re so susceptible to fake news is that we trust the friends and family we connect with online, and it’s in our nature to believe them — even when they post questionable stories.
In a 2019 UK study, less than 40% of participants believed experts when it came to information and advice, with most turning to friends and social media connections. Moreover, one-sixth of the participants admitted to believing anything their friends post, especially when it’s someone they know well.
We Like Shortcuts
Another study, this time by Yale University researchers, found that we fall for fake news articles because we often don’t think enough about the headlines we see — regardless of our pre-existing beliefs. In a succeeding experiment, the same researchers found that when people actually take time to think about headlines, they’re more able to fact-check and discern whether they are reading fake news.
Aside from the time spent discerning, the number of times we’re exposed to the same story also has an effect on our ability to tell if it’s fake. We’re more likely to think something is true if we’ve seen or heard it elsewhere. What’s more, repeated exposure also makes it feel morally okay to share fake news.
And Lastly, We’re Overconfident
Though most people believe fake news to be a huge problem, not many think that they have fallen prey to it before — and this plays into all the psychological traps we’ve mentioned thus far.
A recent study by the University of Utah found that most people vastly overestimate their ability to discern between real and fake news. Those who believe themselves to be above average (around 90% of participants) are more likely to believe and share fake news without knowing it.
The Wider Information Ecosystem Plays a Role, Too
The last piece of the puzzle of why fake news is so pervasive has to do with the environment we’ve built. Agents of disinformation, declining faith in our media institutions, and the relentless pace of information sharing make us even more vulnerable to fake news.
The Rise of Bots and Trolls
Bots and trolls both serve to propagate fake news and provoke emotionally charged discussions, with the former being small pieces of software and the latter being actual human beings.
Across the internet and the globe, bots have been increasingly used as a means for political gain — whether it’s to inflate a politician’s follower count or to spread propaganda. For example, an estimated 20% of tweets about the 2016 presidential debates were made by bots, despite them only representing 0.5% of Twitter users.
But bots masquerading as people have also been very active during the pandemic. Last year, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University estimated that around half of all accounts tweeting about the Covid-19 pandemic were bots.
Disinformation researchers point out that because they’re made of algorithms, bots are cheap and relatively easy to deploy on a range of different issues.
Alongside bots, people, too, can serve as agents of disinformation. Some of the most infamous in recent years are those involved in the 2016 American elections.
A Growing Distrust in Mainstream Media
Trust in mainstream media has long been declining, and hit a new low last year. Gallup’s 2020 study found that a staggering 60% of Americans do not trust mainstream media. It is this distrust that is helping fuel conspiracies — whether it’s flat Earth theories or vaccine misinformation.
Though the Gallup study doesn’t delve into the why of this number, there are several theories explaining the declining trust. One is grounded in media ownership, as newspapers were sold to corporations whose main goal is not necessarily public service, but their own bottom line. Another is the sheer amount of news and information online, which can make it hard to differentiate between news, opinion, and outright lies. Still others can point to the rise of hyper-partisan media outlets that attack mainstream media and fuel the growing distrust.
The Attention Economy
Last but not least, the relentless pace of news and information means that readers’ attention has become an increasingly scarce resource. From online media sites to more traditional news publications, the battle for readers’ time and attention — measured in clicks, shares, likes, and comments — has become more and more cut-throat.
Not only does this mean that there is less time and resource to truly fact-check and edit posts, but also that low-quality posts that provoke and engage audiences are more incentivized than high-quality, long-form journalism. This helps fill up our news feeds with poorly researched content, and also serves to worsen the problem of media distrust.
So, Would You Believe That There Is an Entire Civilization on the Moon?
If asked now, it’s easy to scoff and say no. But given the right story, spread by the right people, and seen enough times, perhaps some of us just might. But still, there are ways to resist.
Of course, fact-checking is important, both through institutions like The Trust Project for readers and Trusting News for journalists and newsrooms. It’s also crucial for governments to protect citizens by holding platforms and outlets accountable for disinformation.
At the very least, we can take an extra minute or so when reading an article to see whether it’s fake — and think twice about how good we really are at recognizing it.