Image with CC from Flickr (user: malias) edited and modified by Sebastián Auyanet with Canva and Snapseed.

Stop catalyzing. Start empathizing.

What social psychology theories have taught me about our chances of beating fake news and reaching to people with different political biases

Here is a common assumption that can be heard a lot these days: the truth solves everything, so we should make sure good journalism reaches more people. You hear that more often since “fake news” started to become one of the most common conversation topics globally last year. At the same time, journalists began to try figuring out why in the world people would believe something they just saw in their Facebook feeds and make decisions based on that.

But fake news has been around for quite a while. In 2013, academic research about the issue from the Ohio State University stated the following:

“As the political fact-checking movement — the FactChecks and Politifacts, along with their various lesser-known cousins — has arisen, so too has a more hard-headed social science effort to get to the root causes of persistent lies and rumors, a situation made all the worse on the web. Of course, journalists hope truth can have a ‘corrective’ effect, but the literature in this area suggests that blasting more facts at people often doesn’t work — hence, the ´information deficit fallacy´.”

If we accept this premise, we can also accept to the notion that journalism and social psychology shouldn´t be isolated disciplines; actually, they should overlap much more frequently. In fact, the Ohio State researchers say that in recent years, “a cottage psych-media research industry has grown up,” exploring such concepts as “motivated reasoning,” “biased assimilation” and “confirmation bias.” All those can easily be applied to the dynamics of news consumption.

“Journalists hope truth can have a ‘corrective’ effect, but the literature in this area suggests that blasting more facts at people often doesn’t work”

The consumption of fake news has been studied for a long time, and its permanence in these dynamics can be explained only by looking to studies like that one. A psychological component affects how we consume news. Demis Glasford, social psychology researcher and associate professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, spoke to my class this week about these processes.

Demis Glasford at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism — Photo by Sebastián Auyanet

Part of the problem with fake news, Glasford told us, is that consuming it is “like sniffing cocaine,” from a group psychology perspective. “People consume it to feel good, to protect themselves,” he explained. “You want to feel good about the groups that you belong to. It feels good, and it´s hard to untangle people from that.”

When you are interacting with information, motivated reasoning comes into play. That means that personal motivation will shape the stories you see, the way you process them and the way you remember that information. In other words, you’ll think an article is good when it supports your position. When it doesn´t, you’ll see flaws.

Glasford also told us: “You not only have people who want to read something in line with its ideology. People don´t have a lot of time, so they use news channels as a proxy.” Basically, he means we watch certain channels or anchors because they see things the way we do and tell us what is right or wrong.

Another psychological force — cognitive dissonance — is also in play. Glasford explains it this way: “If you are forced to confront negative information about someone you like, it will generate a dissonance. How would you feel if you have in your country a president you don´t like who establishes a ‘good’ policy? Probably you would not like it either. Dissonances will come up.” There is also the concept interfering with news consumption called “naive realism,” which basically states that people think they are “objective.” So when they go into conflict with someone, they try to convince the other party of their position.

A suggested path

These concepts help better define how people interact with news. By inserting them into the discussion about news consumption, we automatically abandon the old idea that journalism can make its way by itself and help changes happen. We have to go through a big social psychology jungle if we want to make our messages more effective among different ideological spectrum.

By taking this into account, we might also say there might be a thing or two about how news is produced nowadays that, if properly decoded, might give us another path to beat fake news.

Let me explain: in a way, fake news beats us at our own game. News is typically consumed in the form of articles, with headlines whose purpose is to grab attention. But what if we try to design news for conversation, adding some other things to empower the reader a little more? Yes, journalism is made to have an effect, and as content it is mostly built for those purposes. Fake news can look for these kinds of effects easily. But what if we move from the mindset of “here is the news, here is the truth, you should read it if you are a good citizen” to something closer to “we are trying to inform conversations better, so we should try to approach readers in a different way”? And I’m not thinking at all about traffic or page views. Just as an example, focusing on solutions journalism for a community may help you gain more trust among your readers, create a better relationship with them and make them pick you as a trusted source in the future. Having said that, it will not be a matter of just doing it: many of the solutions journalism nade today is produced based on ideas that comes from the newsroom and without a single input from the community they intend to serve. But if you let them in and what you produce channels their needs, that may also help you to know better who you are talking to, and what you can do for them in a relationship where both sides can win. By design, fake news cannot do that.

By design, fake news cannot have a strong relationship with its audience.

When doing journalism, our goal should be to boost conversations, and not just the feelings of our readers. What if, instead of just producing stories to catalyze emotions (which is great when properly done), we also try to develop tools to foster better discussions and find common ground among readers, and between them and the news company? We have to move away from this idea of just trying to forcefully convince people about something and move more through empathy, and then see what we can agree on.

“It´s actually very important to preserve that space where we are striving for objectivity, or striving for cooperation,” Glasford said. As we are seeing this less and less in our political environment, I wonder if we as journalists can pick up this way of interacting with people. I wonder if we can carry that torch. Someone will have to do it.

Thanks to Diane Nottle for correcting this article.