By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)―”Fake news: The Death of Truth?” is the subject of a Social Sciences Forum panel discussion taking place on Wed., March 1 from 6 – 7:30 p.m. in the Third Floor reading room of the IU Southeast Library. Admission is free and the public is welcome.
The panel will focus on the nature and background of “fake news,” its influence on the field of public relations and psychological explanations for why it is so easy for people to believe untruths.
Teaming up to look at the phenomenon from several different angles are Jane Dailey, visiting assistant professor of public relations, Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism, and Valérie Scott, senior lecturer in psychology.
The term “fake news” refers to deliberately false or misleading statements packaged to resemble actual vetted reporting. Sometimes this is done for satirical effect, sometimes with the more malicious intent of damaging the credibility of a critic or an opponent, or generating support for a viewpoint that would lack appeal if all the facts were known. Sometimes, apparently, the motive is pure unadulterated mayhem.
However awkward it may sound, untruth is a fact of life. Deception is rife in the natural world, from bacterial camouflage to the lying that some researchers believe to have co-evolved with primates’ cooperative social strategies.
And for all its novelty as a buzzword, “fake news” is not new. It has been an important pillar of government propaganda in dictatorships, including Germany under the Nazis and the Soviet Union under the Communists. It has also been alive and well in U.S. political life, according to Maksl.
“Politicians have tried to circumvent the media, from FDR’s fireside chats to Trump’s twitter feed,” Maksl said. “The difference now is that we live in an era of information abundance, so it’s easy to consume only the media that aligns with your world view.”
Social media, and the economic algorithms that underpin digital advertising, drive the creation of such “echo chambers,” while avoiding the ethical responsibilities of companies that understand themselves as media firms, according to Maksl.
“I think these companies need to wake up and realize they function as gatekeepers and should thus take that role seriously,” Maksl said, noting that tech firms such as Facebook have begun to make moves in that direction.
Of course, the source of fake news is only part of the issue. The other half is the willingness of information consumers to believe it.
Over the past several decades, broader trends in society and culture have driven self-segregation and the creation of largely homogeneous zones of like-mindedness that are prone to overlook bias for what it is, as described in Bill Bishop’s 2008 book, The Big Sort.
To break out of these cultural “bubbles” is difficult, as they are constantly being reinforced by new bursts of incoming information.
For Dailey, the emerging national conversation around misinformation and deception is a fruitful educational moment.
“I see the proliferation of fake news and discussion of alternative facts a perfect opportunity to teach students the importance of truth-telling in the work public relations professionals do,” Dailey said. “It’s a chance to show students and others how legitimate public relations is not synonymous with spin and deception as some professionals have recently portrayed it to be.”
The forum will also delve into some of the psychological mechanisms―in this case, judgment biases―that help to make misrepresentations so successful.
According to Scott, cognitive and social psychology have contributed much understanding to this area.
Confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret evidence to support pre-existing beliefs while ignoring conflicting information, is one phenomenon that makes well-targeted falsehoods stick. The recognition heuristic is another, showing that familiar or familiar-seeming ideas, messages or people tend to be trusted more than their unfamiliar counterparts.
“From a news standpoint, this means that individuals will base their judgments about a specific item on whether that item is recognized,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, social psychology has shown that the perceived credibility of the source of information can boost the acceptability of the message, according to Scott, while false consensus effect delivers the reassuring perception that one is not alone in one’s views.
Mechanisms such as these become more compelling when countervailing influences are weakened, for example when institutions such as the press, academia or government lose the trust of the citizenry.
“Citizens in a self-governing society must have truthful information to make decisions,” Maksl said. “Without a free press that seeks the truth, sometimes aggressively, citizens are more prone to believe propaganda, misinformation and outright lies.”
With so much of its cause, intent and effect rooted in social and political realities, fake news is difficult to combat. If truth were to become utterly relative, for example, it would cease to exist. A greater understanding of how media works, and a higher degree of critical thinking can help consumers of information sort through the overabundance of messages to which they are exposed.
“Media is all around us, but we don’t think about it because it’s so pervasive,” Maksl said. “Media literacy requires that we think critically about the processes and influences that affect media messages. It’s about developing skepticism, not cynicism.”