06 August 2018

Maybe we can't fix “fake news” with facts

There’s been a few recent moves in the war on “fake news.” For instance, several platforms stopped hosting a certain conspiracy-laden podcast today. (You can still get all that conspiratorial stuff. The original website is untouched.) But the discussion about “fake news” seems to be focusing on one thing: its content.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this diagram I made about communication, based on Daniel Kahneman’s work. Kahneman argues you need three things for successful communication:

  1. Evidence
  2. Likeability
  3. Trust

I feel like most of the talking about “fake news” is very focused on “evidence.” This article, for instance, describes some very interesting research about how people view news articles. It’s concerned with how people are very prone to value opposing sources, but are very poor at evaluating the credibility of those sources.

All good as far as it goes. But, as I mentioned before, it feels a lot like science communicators who, for years and years, tried to beat creationists, flat Earthers, anti-vaccine folks, and climate change deniers by bringing forward evidence. They were using the deficit model: “People must think this because they don't know the facts. We must get the facts to them.”

That didn’t work.

I’m kind of seeing the same trend in fighting fake news. “Remove the falsehoods, and all will fix itself.”

But where I see the truly big gap between where we were and where we are isn’t about facts. It’s about trust.

When you bring evidence to a fight that isn’t about facts, you will lose. Every time. Facts mean nothing without trust. “Check the facts” means nothing when you are convinced everyone is lying to you. This is why conspiratorial thinking is so powerful and dangerous: it destroys trust.

You see the results in how someone who buys into one conspiracy theory often buys into several other conspiracy theories. If you believe Obama wasn’t born in the US because conspiracy (say), it’s not that big a leap to the moon landings were fake and the Earth is a flat square.

I have some hypotheses about how America in particular got to this point. I suspect the erosion of trust was slow, gradual, and – importantly – started long before social media. Maybe more like, I don’t know, let’s say 1996.

I don’t know how to reverse a long-term trend of distrust and paranoia. I’m not saying, “We need to understand and sympathize with fascists,” either. But you can’t cure a disease when you misdiagnose it. I just don’t see focusing on the factual content of social media getting very far.

Related posts

The Zen of Presentations, Part 59: The Venn of Presentations
Post fact politics catches up to science communication

External links

Fake news exploits our obliviousness to proper sourcing
Looking for life on a flat Earth
How can I convince someone the Earth is round?
Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

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