The controversy around “fake news” took on a new pall this month when a North Carolina man chose to investigate, gun in hand, a false online conspiracy theory that a Washington. D.C.-area pizza parlor was harboring a pedophilia ring with ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Known now as “Pizzagate,” the incident (in which no one was hurt and the gunman arrested) leads to a bigger question of what Americans perceive as fact and fiction in a media landscape where conspiracy theorists and trolls can have as much voice and public attention (if not more) as traditional news outlets.
While it’s easy to condemn the accused — Edgar Maddison Welch — for jumping to an extreme conclusion over claims spread on sites like 4chan and Reddit, it’s equally easy to forget that Welch is hardly alone.
It’s impossible to know how many Americans read and believed the story, but researchers at Stanford University recently released startling numbers that offer insight into the fake news paradox.
Perhaps the most shocking finding of the report is that a whopping 93 percent of college students couldn’t identify lobbyist websites as biased sources of information. The findings were equally dismal for high school students, less than 20 percent of whom knew that looking at one photograph online was not enough to tell if an event actually took place or not. Eighty percent of middle school students were unaware of what “sponsored content” meant or that it differed from other content on a website.
Students also struggled to convey what makes a source credible, as education nonprofit news outlet The Hechinger Report pointed out.
“When presented with a tweet made from a liberal advocacy group, half of the students judged the tweet without bothering to click the link to read the source of information,” Nichole Dobo wrote. “Among the students who did click, few were able to articulate why a poll that was cited was credible or not.”
Why do so many Americans have trouble telling truth from fiction online?
The answer may come down to human biology, as science writer and Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer illustrated in a 2010 TED talk. The human tendency to believe something is, in Shermer’s view, a byproduct of perfectly honed survival instincts — it’s better to err on the side of believing something is true and exercise caution rather than assume something is wrong.
“If you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind and it turns out to be a dangerous predator, you’re lunch,” Shermer argued in his talk.
And, as Business Insider reported, humans are much more vulnerable to believing lies or misinformation when they feel somehow threatened. Believing that something is true is the first step to asserting control over that situation — a deeply human, psychological need, Northwestern University professor Adam Galisnky argued.
“The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," Galinsky told Business Insider.
This phenomenon goes far beyond fake news deceiving readers. Some experts have even tied the human need to assert control over situations to factual distortions surrounding major cataclysmic events, such as the 9/11 “truther” movement, which contends the terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the government, or the popular conspiracy that the Sandy Hook school massacre was staged.
“Their distortions offered a reprieve to people overwhelmed by a perceived loss of control,” CNN Gregory Krieg wrote. “In targeting the victims (of Sandy Hook), they have created — at an unfathomable moral price — a place to direct their rage.”
If the feeling of a lack of control can make people more susceptible to conspiracy theory and hyperbole, it makes sense why an estimated 70 percent of Americans believe the news media is intentionally biased.
As the election results showed, mainstream news outlets have serious work to do in better understanding the voices of those who are skeptical of — and feel ignored by — traditional news coverage. The fact that many outlets didn't take Trump's candidacy seriously until the election was nearly over helped sow doubt in many people's minds, and both candidates' use of social media raises the question of how much modern politics needs journalism to get messages out.
“This could be the last election where mainstream media play a dominant or leading role,” Canadian and American media ethicist Stephen Ward said after the election. “Given what Trump has done on Twitter, I see more and more campaigns running this way in the future, without visiting editorial boards — saying, 'to hell with them, we don’t need them.’”