Conformity and Bias in Sharing Fake News

keyboard-and-hoax-sign

If nearly everybody believes something, then it must be true. If most of us act the same way, then it must be okay to act that way. Right? No.

These common-sense ways of drawing conclusions about the world are logical fallacies. They go by names such as the bandwagon fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, or argumentum ad populum. In and of itself, the commonality of a belief does not make it true.

I’m not a historian, but as one example, I’m pretty sure a lot of us believed the earth was the center of the universe for a long time. Until science provided data to the contrary.

earth-as-center-of-univ

Of course sometimes getting on a bandwagon makes sense. Indeed, if nearly every expert in a relevant scientific field believes something (based on research), then it would be logical to believe it (not that science has never gotten anything wrong). Eventually, science does tend to convince the majority of people of big things like the relative location of our planet.

But what if your bandwagon drives the roads only through MSNBC or only Fox News? Or only through certain partisan blogs or rallies? Well now that could be a problem. Of many relevant quotes…

“The prominence of partisan news sources…allows Americans to isolate themselves in echo chambers where they are exposed only to arguments that reinforce their opinions” (Smith & Searles, 2014, p. 72).

It’s called selective exposure and allows us to pad our egos by overestimating the number of others who agree with us, called the false consensus effect (Myers, 2013). Echo chambers give the illusion of (biased) consensus.

Not that MSNBC and Fox News are equivalently biased on every issue. To believe so would be a false equivalence fallacy. And of course even partisan news shows can provide accurate information part of the time.

If we hang with individuals who use the same news sources as we do, then conformity processes can really kick in. We tend to feel validated when we converse with these individuals. We might even become more extreme through processes such as group polarization or groupthink (Myers, 2013).

What about those of us who get a lot of our news from Facebook or other social media? Ding ding ding. Okay now there is definitely a problem. As many reports have noted near and since the 2016 presidential election, fake news stories get electronically shared more often than real news stories (e.g., BuzzFeed News, 2016).

anger

Among many potential reasons for this sharing-fake-news phenomenon are anger (Hasell & Weeks, 2016) and the confirmation bias (Braucher, 2016). When we read something shockingly negative about the candidate whom we already dislike, we’re more likely to believe it, to get angry about it, and to share it, to try to further validate our belief and emotion.

And as more of us share the same fake story, a bandwagon emerges.

Also, if we identify the (fake-)news source as being from our political side (e.g., liberal or conservative), then we are more likely to go along with it. In an article titled “Party Over Policy,” Geoffrey Cohen (2003) showed that people generally favor a position if they think it comes from their own political group, even if (incredibly) it goes against their previous beliefs.

group of identical people - portable network graphics

The social-science advice to step back and think for yourself to avoid these conformity-related fallacies has become of paramount importance in American politics. But unfortunately, not all of us are good at thinking for ourselves.

I don’t have a simple set of rules to follow, but for starters…

  1. Try to be open to the possibility that you might sometimes blindly go along with your political group. Most of us see others doing it but not ourselves (Cohen, 2003).
  2. Try to be open to the possibility that some people on the opposing political side are not all bad.
  3. Try to avoid getting all your news from only a few sources (especially if they’re known for being partisan). Give mainstream news media a chance. Most large-scale investigations of the news media overall have shown there’s a lot more balance than most people think (e.g., see BuzzFeed News, 2016, Lee, 2005; Stalder, 2009).
  4. Here’s one of many potentially trustworthy sites on how to tell if a news story is fake (before deciding to share it): http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/tech/how-to-spot-fake-misleading-news-trnd/

Automatically going along with your group or sharing fake news against the opposing side can have short-term psychological (ego) benefits and might even win elections.

Ignorance can be (short-term) bliss.

But if the goal is to better understand each other and the world, then pause and maybe ask questions of your group before sharing their beliefs. (Of course many of you do just that.)

———-

References:

Braucher, D. (December 28, 2016). Fake news: Why we fall for it. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201612/fake-news-why-we-fall-it

BuzzFeed News (October 20, 2016). Hyperpartisan Facebook pages are publishing false and misleading information at an alarming rate. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/partisan-fb-pages-analysis?utm_term=.ik3N4BNbX4#.ni6mrgmLyr

Cohen, G. L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 808-822.

Hasell, A., & Weeks, B. E. (2016). Partisan provocation: The role of partisan news use and emotional responses in political information sharing in social media. Human Communication Research, 42, 641-661.

Lee, T. (2005). The liberal media myth revisited: An examination of factors influencing perceptions of media bias. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 49, 43-64.

Myers, D. G. (2013). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, G., & Searles, K. (2014). Who let the (attack) dogs out? New evidence for partisan media effects. Public Opinion Quarterly, 78, 71-99.

Stalder, D. R. (2009). Political orientation, hostile media perceptions, and group-centrism. North American Journal of Psychology, 11, 383-399.

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