Fake it till you make it. That old adage has never been so poignant in a year that has seen a surge in fake news. The rise in stories describing events that never happened, often involving fake people in fake places, has led Facebook and Google promising to tackle them. But are we really so gullible?
According to several studies, the answer is yes: even the most obvious fake news starts to become believable if it’s shared enough times.
In the months running up to the US election there was a surge in fake news. According to an analysis by Craig Silverman, a journalist, during this time the top 20 fake stories in circulation overtook the top 20 stories from 19 mainstream publishers.
Paul Horner, a prolific publisher of fake news, has said he believes Donald Trump was elected because of him. “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time… His followers don’t fact-check anything – they’ll post everything, believe anything,” he told the Washington Post.
Silverman previously tracked rumours circulating online in 2014 and found that shares and social interactions around fake news articles dwarfed those of the articles that debunked them. According to Silverman, fake news stories are engineered to appeal to people’s hopes and fears, and aren’t constrained by reality, which gives them the edge in creating shareable content.
I know it’s wrong
You might think you’re immune to falling for these lies, but a wealth of research disagrees. Back in the 1940s, researchers found that “the more a rumour is told, the greater is its plausibility”. They suggested this means that a rumour born out of mild suspicion can, by gaining currency, shift public thinking and opinion.
This illusion of truth was demonstrated empirically in 1977 when researchers in the US quizzed college students on the veracity of statements that they were told may be true or false. The researchers found that simply repeating the statements at a later date was enough to increase the likelihood of the students believing them.
Last year, Lisa Fazio at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and her team found that students become more likely to believe a statement that they know must be false if it is repeated.
“Our research suggests that false news can and likely does affect people’s beliefs. Even if people have the knowledge to know that a headline is false, reading it multiple times will make it seem more true,” Fazio says.
Reassuringly, the team found that a person’s prior knowledge still has a large influence over their beliefs, but it’s still a worrying trend given that falsehoods appear repeatedly in our newsfeeds every day.
Work it out
Can we learn to detect fake news? Despite growing up surrounded by fake news, there is little evidence that young people have grown adept at detecting it. In a recent study, US high school students were shown an image of deformed flowers purportedly growing near the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. When asked if the photo – which appeared on an image-sharing website – qualified as strong evidence about the conditions near the plant, less than 20 per cent had doubts about the source of the photo and 40 per cent considered it strong evidence, despite the lack of information on authorship.
It gets worse: studies show that students tend to place enormous trust in search engines to deliver accurate results, often turning to the first result returned – a concern given that fake news can appear in the section for news stories displayed above Google’s search results, a problem Google is rushing to fix.
If we’re expecting such companies to be the arbiters of truth, there are other problems – including whether they have the necessary expertise. A recent investigation reported that outsourced workers used by Facebook to manually filter content flagged as abusive make their evaluations on average in just 10 seconds.
So how can you protect yourself from digital lies? An easy step is to check who produced it. Often it is clear from the URL that a website is pretending to be reputable by stealing the name and style of another publication. Also, take a look at the other stories on the website. Fake news websites often have nothing but fake content. If all the stories are outrageous, consider it a red flag. Finally, search for coverage of the story elsewhere, if a story is false you’ll often find it debunked on websites such as snopes.com.