I find it really surprising how often I see things that are completely absurd shared on Facebook or other social media. Things that I want to think no one would ever believe, but somehow people believe them. I decided to look deeper into this phenomenon in order to try to gain a better understanding of what is going through the heads of these “victims”.
First, I think it is important to understand the concept known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is described as the “tendency to seek out evidence that supports our hypotheses and deny, dismiss, or distort evidence that contradicts them” (Lilienfeld, 2014, p. 9). This means we, usually unconsciously, try to confirm our current beliefs with as much information as possible without analyzing it to actually understand it. Let’s take a look at the following example:
I found this gem on my Facebook news feed. To understand why this is an example of a confirmation bias, you need a little background information. The person who shared this is definitely one of the most conservative people I have added on Facebook. This person posts and shares anti-Muslim content almost daily. Now any decent person wouldn’t believe an article with “Forget the ban, sick scum are already here” in its headline, would they? Well, if you already have these ideas in your head, you might jump to a conclusion and believe it without any actual evidence just like this person did. After reading the article, I looked for any evidence that this actually occurred. The only articles I could find relating to this “event”, were from sites that I have never heard of with extremely conservative views. You’d think that an event like this would be covered by some mainstream media, right? Even Fox News didn’t have anything about this!
Next, I would like to examine where we are seeing this fake news. Most of the time, we find fake news on social media, shared by our friends or family. Most people tend to trust their friends and family. Some people have so much trust in their friends and family that they don’t bother looking into the credibility of the things they are sharing. A study published in the Journal of Media Psychology in early 2016 shows that people who customize their media tend to agree with statements such as “I think the interface is a true representation of who I am” and “I feel the website represents my core personal values”. They examined this phenomenon in further detail by adding fake news stories to the portals of the study’s participants. They found that “participants who had customized their news portal were less likely to scrutinize the fake news and more likely to believe it” (Kang and Sundar, 2016). This is why fake news spreads on social media.
There are surely many other theories and explanations for the psychology of fake news, but I believe these are the most prominent. Just skimming the surface of this topic, I was able to better understand the psychology of fake news and how it spreads on social media. I encourage you all to challenge your biases and your trust in order to stop the modern epidemic of fake news.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Namy, L. L., & Woolf, N. J. (2014). Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Sundar, S. S. (2016, December 11). Why We Fall For Fake News: The Psychology of Online News Consumption. Retrieved February 07, 2017, from http://www.newsweek.com/why-we-fall-fake-news-529777