Why We Fall for Fake News and How to Bust It

On many college campuses, students are being trained to identify fake news, while some are even learning how to write their own false stories as a way to understand the phenomenon.

Even though the election is over, fake news and daily disputes over what constitutes a fact haven't really gone away.

While meeting with congressional leaders Monday, President Trump repeated his claim that several million votes for Hillary Clinton were illegal, despite the lack of evidence and statements to the contrary by elections officials. Trump also claimed that his inauguration brought more than a million people to the National Mall in Washington, despite photographic evidence disproving the statement.

Measuring the impact of fake news spread through Facebook or Twitter is more difficult. Did made-up reports of pre-election ballot-stuffing for Hillary Clinton in Ohio before the election change any votes? Perhaps not, but it did lead the story's original author, a Republican legislative aide in Maryland, to lose his job last week On many college campuses, professors are teaching their students identify and analyze fake news shared on social media, while some are even teaching students how to write their own fake news stories as a form of satire to make a bigger point about critical thinking.

"It's become such a big part of public discourse," said Sergio Figueiredo, assistant professor of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. "Whether its President Trump's press secretary talking about 'alternative facts' or CNN saying it's not going to put out statements from press briefings if not deemed accurate."

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Figueiredo, who teaches rhetoric as well as social media writing, say, his students sometimes bring up fake news in discussions about how best to make an argument.

"I'm still figuring out the best strategies just to address it," Figueiredo said. "You hear a lot of people talking about fake news, but I don't know that people buy into it. I wonder if it's a contemporary technique to dismiss a story you don't believe."

At the University of Washington, two professors plan to offer a course this spring on "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" to help students wade through inaccurate statistical analyses in science, medicine and social sciences.

Meanwhile, some psychologists are trying to understand why people believe information, even when they suspect it is false or misleading. The answer could lie in something called motivated reasoning.

"One of the reasons that fake news is so successful on the internet is that when I see a piece of information and I agree with it, I do not engage in any critical analysis," said Troy Campbell, a professor of marketing at the University of Oregon who researches the psychology of consumer behavior. "You might not look below and say what is the source of that article or let me go type this into Google to see if it is really true or fact-check it. You do not engage in the same quantity and quality of processing around it. Especially if it is not something you agree with and want to agree with."

Campbell has extended his research into the world of "unfalsability," or why people deny facts that don't confirm to their existing world view. The main reason, according to his 2015 study in the Journal of Social Psychology, is that people don't want to confirm facts that make them feel bad about themselves.

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Campbell sees this same kind behavior expressing itself in voters who supported Donald Trump, a topic of fascination at the recent meeting of the Society for personal Social and Psychology in Antonio, where Seeker reached Campbell by phone.

"It's been a big point of discussion," he said.

"A lot of reason that people voted for Donald Trump is the feeling that they are being told by modern society that they are bad, dumb, stupid people," Campbell said. "Voting for Donald Trump is affirmation that I am a good person, I am valuable and he is not bad."

Campbell expects that fake news will have a polarizing effect on American society as both sides dismiss arguments from the other without examining information critically. One solution is to take away the reason that people have for disregarding facts.

"What we can do is to make sure that people don't have a motivation to disregard the evidence," Campbell said. "It's not always going to be possible."

The other answer is to rethink how students are taught in school, and question whether it's a good idea to assume that every child's opinion as valid, even if it isn't accurate or correct, Campbell explained.

"I would say it's an important thing to raise people in a way where they do not just trust their gut all the time," he said. "To raise people who identify as critical thinkers."

Now, for something completely different, Mark Marino has another theory of exposing fake news. He's teaching students how to make up their own.

Marino and Talan Memmott just launched "How to Write and Read Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Trump" as part of the UnderAcademy College, an online school of avant-garde studies that leans toward the absurd.

Marino has signed up more than 100 students who are given assignments in how to make fake tweets, write fake news articles by changing a few words in real news articles, and "post-fact-checking" in which students reinforce their stories with made up fact-checking.

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"I hope they will get a more critical understanding of the world of fake news," said Marino, who is also a professor of writing at the University of Southern California. "At the same time, I want them to develop as both readers and writers while thinking about role of satire , and play, and perhaps the way satire and irony can be used as veils for people who want to make some money out of clicks."

Like many academics, Marino divides fake news into various sub-categories, including fake news from Russia and the kind of tall tales like "Bat Boy" and UFO landings that used to be found in supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer.

Even though he enjoys satire, Marino says he is worried about the trend of "real" fake news spread on social media or by the president.

"It's serving the function of spam by jamming the information networks and disrupting authentic communication," he said. Fake news "is adding additional noise to a sphere that's already pretty confusing."

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