Flattening the curve of fake news

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Graphic illustration by Emma Cionca

In the presence of fake news, the brain struggles to distinguish between what is true and what is false.

By Emma Cionca and Emma Constable

The media has evolved to become the public’s largest source of information. Especially in recent years, people have become increasingly aware of fake news, though it is not always easy to distinguish between what is true and false. The tendency to believe that false information is true after repeated exposure is known as the illusory truth effect. Particularly with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, fake news has been especially prominent in the media, producing unfavorable psychological effects on the average consumer.

The concept of the illusory truth effect was first brought up in 1977 by psychologist Dr. Lynn Hasher and her team in a study done by Temple University. It occurs when a false statement is repeated so many times that the belief that it is true increases. The phrase “repeat a lie often enough and people will eventually come to believe it” accurately describes the gist of the illusory truth effect. However, it doesn’t have to occur only through repetition. Any method that increases the brain’s familiarity with certain statements promotes the illusory truth effect. For example, if text is written in large bold font or if a statement rhymes, the perceived truth of these written statements increases.

The average person assesses the validity of information based on the credibility of the source. However, as described earlier, repeated exposure to false information will hinder a person’s ability to tell whether the information is true or not, meaning a person may perceive information as true even if the source is unreliable. Such discounted credibility is partly due to a feature of information processing known as source neglect, in which people tend to retain potent statements or facts but forget where they learned them, which poses problems when it comes to discounting information obtained from dubious sources. The illusory truth effect also tends to be stronger in two specific situations: where the statement is ambiguous or when the person is under the impression that they are educated about the subject of the statement.

In both cases, one’s ego plays a major role in how information is perceived as true. At all times, the mind subconsciously looks for answers in the complexities of the world, seeking to form patterns and gain a secure sense of understanding. Naturally, then, people are more comfortable being somewhat knowledgeable about a certain subject than not and would rather accept an ambiguous statement as a fact to gain quick answers than question its validity. The same basic concepts of ego and the mind’s need for uniformity apply to the second situation, in which people believe they are experts on a certain topic. In psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when people hold beliefs, ideas or values that contradict their perceived character or personality. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance and questioning their perceived area of expertise, people are naturally inclined to agree with statements that fall in line with their existing knowledge or beliefs.

Even when a statement is known to be completely false, the illusory truth effect can maintain its stronghold. Attractive or outlandish claims often confuse one’s judgement, and the ability to make rational judgements based on experience and critical thinking is weakened. Especially if one has held a false belief for an extended period of time, repetition or reinforcement of the belief continues to feed the person’s confidence in its legitimacy, while the real truth has much less convincing power. In theory, similar methods of repetition can be applied to convince people of the correct facts, but the endurance of the illusory truth effect over time proves that the truth does not always win.

While the name of the effect itself is still relatively recent, the concept itself has been in practice for decades. In the time of the Nazis, Hitler employed a tool of political propaganda called the “Big Lie.” According to Hitler, this was any claim so ludicrous that, ironically, everyone would believe it because they could not fathom that one would lie so boldly. For example, many blindly believed Hitler’s assertion that the Jews blamed Germany’s defeat in World War I on General Erich Ludendorff, an absurdity because Ludendorff was a German war hero, though also an anti-Semite whom the Nazis later exploited. Hitler took advantage of this tactic knowing one’s vulnerability to falsehoods; in his autobiography Mein Kampf, he himself states that “the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, also favored another more extreme form of conducing the illusory truth effect: the repetition of blatant lies to convince the population of Hitler’s greatness.

In a more modern setting, the illusory truth effect is commonly seen in advertising. “Puffing,” or making baseless claims about a product to increase its appeal, can prove to be very effective, as the repetition of these claims solidifies them in a buyer’s mind. Likewise, catchphrases and slogans, such as the ever popular “I’m Lovin’ It” from McDonald’s, are commonly associated with a certain product or company, consolidating a perceived truth about it.

Clever marketers will use effective persuasion tactics, including repetition, when they want to persuade consumers of the truth,” said Don Moore, a business professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Along with puffing and associating a product with a certain catchphrase, other common marketing tactics include marketing automation and endorsement. Marketing automation refers to strategically sending potential customers different forms of advertisement based on their interests. This repeated exposure to a potentially appealing product piques the buyer’s attention. Meanwhile, endorsement works through a method similar to that of catchphrases and slogans. The promotion of a product by a celebrity, for example, increases its credibility and creates a perceived truth about it in buyers’ minds.

Perhaps the most influential recent example of the illusory truth effect is seen in the abundant misinformation regarding COVID-19 circulating in the media. While the spreading of misinformation is a common practice in politics employed by both Republicans and Democrats, President Donald Trump has recently been accused of spreading disinformation about COVID-19. His false claims include the virus dying out on its own without a vaccine, 99 percent of all cases being harmless and that it would weaken by April due to the negative effects of warm weather on the pathogen. All of these assertions have been proven false. However, these are only several out of dozens of similar false claims. The repetition of so much false information has led many Americans to disregard the virus as a serious threat. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an inadequate reaction to the crisis by the U.S., leaving over 230 thousand Americans dead as of Oct. 30.

In fact, new coronavirus index findings show a correlation between continued belief in these falsehoods and lowered perception of risk as well as engaging in reckless behavior. In a study by Axios Ipsos, Americans were presented with six true-false statements commonly part of misinformation about the pandemic, such as “Masks have been shown to limit the spread of COVID-19 from person to person” and “Hydroxychloroquine has been proven effective in treating COVID-19.” Of these claims, only 50 percent of subjects correctly classified all six. The 13 percent of Americans who correctly responded to three or fewer claims were associated with being less concerned about the outbreak, less likely to wear a mask at all times and more likely to trust information from President Trump. In addition, while the study found that most Americans still view returning to normal life as a risk, only two-thirds reported wearing a mask when leaving their homes, and half reported maintaining a distance of six feet from others at all times. These results indicate that despite the climbing death toll, most Americans are not aware of the true dangers of the virus, for which the spread of false information is most likely to blame.

“I think it’s these unrepresentative, subtly fake pieces of information that get circulated over and over again that really affect people’s perceptions of the coronavirus in a negative way by making it seem more safe than it actually is,” junior Albert Tam said. “It was really frustrating to see scientific claims from all these studies twisted in such terrible ways.”

As its name implies, the illusory truth effect has a direct impact on the internal processes of consumers who are repeatedly exposed to deceptive or misleading information. The internet and various forms of online media, unsurprisingly, play significant roles in promoting repeated exposure to such types of information. Rapidly-evolving technology and online platforms that have become indispensable to daily life allow users to share social media posts, news articles and public statements with just one touch of a finger. However, the ease with which such diverse ideas proliferate also applies to the spread of misinformation, which tends to circulate much more quickly and extensively than does the truth. This is due in part to the brain’s natural inclination toward information that appears particularly shocking or extreme — better judgement is compromised by claims that people subconsciously want to believe are true, in a psychological process known as motivated reasoning.

“[There is] a tendency for us to more easily believe conclusions that somehow make us feel good or flatter us, or that allow us to demonize our enemies, or that are somehow otherwise egocentrically useful for us,” Moore said.

Inevitably, this attraction to information that is tempting yet potentially false leads to rapid spreading through social media platforms and the internet, which can garner more views, reposts and trending status in a positive feedback loop of repeated exposure and deception. Circular reporting, in particular, refers to the circulation of news articles or headlines that are all based on the same unverified fact yet appear to be legitimate because they cite each other as sources. This poses a major problem in regard to information sharing and reception, because the more that viewers come in contact with similar claims, the more susceptible they become to taking them at face value. Repeated exposure essentially ensures that a particular headline or statement does not remain a discrete memory but instead cements itself as an accepted fact in viewers’ minds.

Due to the media’s large consumer base, the illusory truth effect influences large groups of people, not just individuals, to adopt these accepted facts and form a common belief in claims that are only partially true or even completely false. This widespread effect has unsettling implications for the future—if people become increasingly more susceptible to believing information after repetition or continuous exposure, then outrageous claims may be accepted as true. Rational judgement is rendered a mere spectator as repetitive assertion replaces common sense. Additionally, those who are aware of deception and dishonesty in the media may question the validity of claims that are actually true because awareness of the illusory truth effect makes knowing what or whom to trust more difficult than following the general consensus not to believe everything that is seen online. In times of crises, however, compromised trust is not ideal. Especially as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, maintaining honest and open lines of communication is essential for preventing a rampage of misinformation that can expose unwitting people to dangerously misleading claims and pose threats to their safety.

People do want to believe the truth. On the other hand, they also want to be right. They want to think of themselves as good or virtuous or noble, and the goals of believing the truth and being right are in conflict if you have believed something false.”

— Don Moore, business professor at UC Berkeley

Unfortunately, it is a basic fact of psychology that simply knowing something exists is not enough to counter it. In terms of the illusory truth effect, rejecting misinformation is particularly difficult because once it has been ingrained into public belief, it is not easily reversed just by stating the actual truth. People tend to stick to their beliefs because they provide a sense of security, so they are subconsciously averse to new and contradictory information even if it appears more logical.

“People do want to believe the truth,” Moore said. “On the other hand, they also want to be right. They want to think of themselves as good or virtuous or noble, and the goals of believing the truth and being right are in conflict if you have believed something false.”

Therefore, simply being aware of the illusory truth effect is ineffective in avoiding it completely. However, maintaining a conscious effort to avoid sensationalist media and doubt outlandish claims, especially when they begin to appear repeatedly, can help. Confirming the credibility of sources and searching for criticism of questionable information are additional defenses against falling prey to this phenomenon. Although these precautions reduce the convenience of rapidly-spread information, a reasonable amount of suspicion and an effort to critically evaluate claims lower the chance of developing false beliefs, allowing the truth to take its rightful place.

This story was originally published on The Epic on November 4, 2020.