Why fake news can be great for journalism
Charlie Beckett

I am sorry to be very critical of you here, yet I feel like your analysis is missing an important aspect of human biology/psychology.

While the concrete actions you provided for journalists, networks and government seem reasonable and can change the information landscape for the better, it assumes that irrational decisions taken by the public are caused by a lack of true, accessible information. That the signal to noise ratio of good/quality vs false/fake information is what determines decision outcomes or held beliefs.

This is a paradigm that was true in a world where information was hard to come by, yet this is exactly the world we cannot go back to easily (unless extreme events cause us to become like north korea or worse), and we should not try to do so.

Our human brain is subjected to an incredible amount of biases [e.g. availability bias, conformation bias] that shape how we understand our reality. We cannot escape this biases since they are an integral part of our biology. In the past, having few sources of information, our perception of reality would inevitably fall in line with what was offered, since there were little or no alternative sources of information.

Today, however, we have seen an incredible shift in how our society communicates and is exposed to information.

Social media, facebook, youtube, blogposts, traditional media etc. are all engaging in an epic battle for our attention. In this scenario, when information availability is constant and ubiquitous, other parameters become more important in determining which information reaches us and thus is able to shape our perception of reality.

This is important to comprehend. If we understand information in a Dawkin’ish “meme” fashion, where competing “memes” fight for their survival niche in our public consciousness/attention, than only the most adaptive memes best suited to gain our attention and stay in our memory have a chance to survive.

How did fake news ever come about? Obviously, truthful information has an advantage over untruthful information when it comes to evidence-based decision making. Yet, we have to look deeper into human psychology and understand that our decision making is mostly irrational and biased for the majority of our decisions. What shapes our decision making significantly are for example “feelings”, emotional predispositions that are not consciously taken into account yet more predictive of decision outcome. This is exactly where untruthful memes (fake news) can gain competitive advantage in the fight for our attention.

Emotionally loaded untrue information surpasses the utility function of truth when it comes to meme survival.

We all know that the “appeal to emotion” is a logical fallacy in an argument, yet we constantly fall for it, especially if our analytical thinking guards are down (for example when we browse facebook to relax).

Yet manipulating emotion is just one of the many parameters important for meme survival, the scope of parameters influencing meme fitness is still topic of much debate and research.

One thing we can say for sure: Truth/Objectivity are at best a bonus for meme survival, but by far not the most important qualities information needs to possess to survive in this new world of meme abundance and competition.

What are other fitness parameters?

We do not have a whole picture encompassing everything, but some preliminary research data (Kaye, 2010) suggest that for example blog user behavior can be explained with nine primary motivation factors

  • convenient information seeking
  • anti-traditional media sentiment
  • expression/affiliation, to feel involved and make social connections
  • guidance/opinion seeking
  • ambiance, reading for good writing and personal accounts of the writer
  • personal fulfillment, to relax and for entertainment
  • variety of opinion
  • specific inquiry into subject matter

Please consider that this study is not a universal assessment, but merely for insight purposes into why people read blogs.

So to sum up, all your guidelines proposed to address fake news are running on an old paradigm (information availability, if we fix good/bad signal noise ratio we can “treat” the age-old problem of public literacy)

I believe this strategy is bound to fail if it does not consider the very human condition with all our psychological biases and irrationalities. Also, only by understanding how information spreads and survives in our public consciousness we will be able to find effective measures and put in place mechanisms that give truthful information the edge over untruthful ones.

For now, if I had to bet my money, I’d say that my biggest hope lies with a technical solution, an A.I based filter function that recognizes untrue memes by the way they use known biases.

The alternative would be to change human nature and brain biology, good luck with that.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Philipp Markolin’s story.