“Psychologist Wages War against Media with this Simple Trick!” Different Ways to Approach Fake News

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Guest author Michael Barger

While fake news stories are not necessarily a new phenomenon, we have seen a rise in dubious articles in the past few months due to recent political events. With the rise of social media, it is easier than ever for readers to skim headlines and click the “share” button without much thought. Our newsfeeds are overflowing with rumors and even straight-up lies (or “alternative facts”, if you prefer). With an excess of click-bait and the tidal wave of emotions that accompany our partisan media consumption, it is difficult to recognize how we process the information presented to us. Let’s take some time to consider the different ways people think about and interpret the news as it’s presented.

Psychologists and philosophers have studied how people determine the truth for quite a while. It’s a broad field with an off-putting name: epistemology. It examines ideas about what knowledge is, where (or who) it comes from, and how it comes to be1,2,3. People have many ways of figuring out what is true, and some strategies come with serious flaws. Let’s start with a familiar scenario to explore how people determine facts: Santa Claus.

As children, a lot of us were told by the adults around us that a big, bearded man in a red suit would come down our chimneys with toys every Christmas. At age 4, this sounded like a legitimate story because children take pretty much everything at face value. This is called a realist approach: the information you receive is reality. However, as children grow older, the holes in this reality become more obvious. He visits how many houses in one night? He has a team of flying reindeer? Why doesn’t he visit my Muslim friend even though she’s way better behaved than I am? Children start to realize the world is not such a simple place. They learn to deal with these complexities in one of two different ways. They can become dogmatists or they can become skeptics.

A dogmatist knows that the facts don’t add up, but decides to leave it up to the authority figures to decide what is or is not fact. I know this “Santa Claus” business seems sketchy, but if Mom said to leave out the milk and cookies, it must be real, right? Unfortunately, experts don’t have the correct answer 100% of the time, or may have other motivations for clouding the truth (see Mallory’s recent post on obedience). Journalists are certainly one type of expert.

When approaching news articles, the dogmatic approach produces an abundance of “truths” that simply can’t all be true. As we have seen, there are many news sources available to consumers in the internet age. Here, confirmation bias rears its ugly head again (see Mallory’s post on confirmation bias). People are less likely to think sources are biased if they agree with what the source is saying4. This can affect anyone (whether Pelosi quotes a parody Twitter accounts of Michael Flynn or Trump cites tabloid conspiracies about Ted Cruz’s father).

A skeptic, on the other hand, rejects the idea that authorities know anything at all. Santa Claus is clearly a lie! I can’t let my friends or younger siblings fall for this story! Come to think of it, Mom and Dad are pretty dumb for believing in Santa Claus. There is no nuance – Santa is a lie and everyone who propagated that lie cannot be trusted.

At first glance, this may seem like a better defense against fake news. We’re often told to be “skeptical” when we read something outrageous. Santa is too good to be true! However, a skeptic may not be able to identify when a source has actual, valid information. For example, a skeptic could see dozens of reports pointing to the importance of vaccines or the trends of climate change and outright reject them. With a preponderance of evidence, it is inappropriate to maintain a skeptical approach. Experts are experts for a reason; they spend a lot of time learning about and reporting on their topics. In fact, research has found that people who have too little of a belief in experts as sources of knowledge have a harder time learning from multiple sources of information5. Overreliance on the skepticism strategy can lead us to saying that all news is “fake news.” This leaves us no closer to understanding what is going on in the world.

In a complex world, dogmatism and skepticism are merely opposing half-measures. While neither approach is inherently wrong, they each have systematic flaws. Fortunately, there is another strategy balanced between the two called rationalism. Instead of taking everything at face value, blindly believing particular sources, or rejecting everything we see or hear in the news, rationalism means that we weigh and evaluate the sources to put together a reasonable (and reasoned) approximation of what is true. This means evaluating the claims being made, the motivations and proclivities of those who report the news, and taking in information from more than one source. No, Santa Claus isn’t an actual person and telling kids about his fictional exploits is technically lying. But he is a real idea that people use to symbolize the charitable and selfless morals of Christmas. In the same way, the majority of news is probably somewhere between poignantly perfect and disgustingly deceptive.

In a reality with pervasive fake news, the rationalist approach can be a useful tool. Yes, it may take us longer to reach the truth than if we relied only on experts or automatically rejected everything in the media as false. Each approach has costs and benefits. I encourage you to actively think about how you are thinking when reading the news. Don’t assume a particular report is true. Be open to the possibility that reports you disagree with could provide some insight into our shared reality. But don’t take my word for it; check my sources, find a few more of your own, and decide for yourself.

Michael is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies how students’ beliefs about knowledge and intelligence develop. He is particularly interested in what adults can do to change children’s beliefs. As a developmental psychologist, he often thinks about his own childhood. His dream as a child was to become a published author. Now in academia, he wishes he could tell his younger self that it would have been easier to pursue a career as a professional a cappella singer. 

1Chinn, C. A., Buckland, L. A., & Samarapungavan, A. L. A. (2011). Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist46, 141-167.

2Greene, J. A., Azevedo, R., & Torney-Purta, J. (2008). Modeling epistemic and ontological cognition: Philosophical perspectives and methodological directions. Educational Psychologist43, 142-160.

3Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research67, 88-140.

4Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

5Bråten, I., Strømsø, H. I., & Samuelstuen, M. S. (2008). Are sophisticated students always better? The role of topic-specific personal epistemology in the understanding of multiple expository texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology33, 814-840.